Not all toll hikes are created equal

Driving Expenses
By JEFF INGLIS  |  August 29, 2012

TJI_TollboothPic_main

The Maine Turnpike Authority has decided to increase tolls, starting November 1, to raise $21 million in additional revenue for highway maintenance and debt repayment. The steepest hikes will be for commercial trucks, but most drivers will take a hit. That said, depending on what routes you drive, you might see no increase at all. And if you switch from paying cash to getting an E-ZPass, in some cases you can even lower your toll rate from what you pay now.

You probably guessed a toll hike was coming, what with the reports on Maine Turnpike Authority fiscal excesses dating back many years (see "E-ZPass on Ethics," by Lance Tapley, August 4, 2006) and the more recent jailing of 23-year MTA head Paul Violette for stealing between $150,000 and $230,000 in MTA funds to subsidize an extravagant lifestyle. Present MTA executive director Peter Mills swears the latest rate hike has nothing to do with those misdeeds, but many of his board of directors, and many of his employees, are holdovers from that era (see "Many Maine Turnpike Enablers Still in Power," by Lance Tapley, August 5, 2011).

So what's changing? Right now, the major barriers on the Turnpike charge $1.25 at West Gardiner, $1.75 at Gray/New Gloucester, and $2 at York. They'll go up to $1.75, $2.25, and $3, respectively. E-ZPass users pay on a more varied scale partly based on the distance they actually travel on the highway, but apart from the free trips between Lewiston, Auburn, and Sabbatus, everybody pays at least 50 cents per trip. (E-ZPass users are guaranteed at least the same toll rates as cash payers, so you'll never pay more, but often pay less.)

We broke down the numbers to find some interesting tidbits.

• Of the 314 total variations on trips on the pike (from every exit to every other available exit, northbound and southbound), 92 — just shy of one-third — won't see any toll increase at all. Most of these are trips in the greater Portland area, such as driving to Gray from Rand Road on the Portland-Westbrook line, though some no-increase trips cover a lot of ground, like going from the "Portland North" exit 53 to exit 19 in Wells.

• And 94 trips, including 46 of those seeing no increase at all, will cost the same whether you use cash or an E-ZPass. So if, for example, you drive from Gray to Kennebunk, you'll pay $1.50 no matter what. And driving from Kennebunk to Gray will cost you the same $1, cash or E-ZPass, before and after the rate change.

• For 76 trips, nearly a quarter of the possibilities, converting to E-ZPass as the new rates take effect will actually save you money over the cash payments at the current rates. (A driver entering the Turnpike by driving south on I-295, heading to New Hampshire or Massachusetts, at present pays $3 cash — $1 at the 295-Pike interchange, and $2 in York — or $2.50 E-ZPass. The new rate will be $4 cash or $2.85 E-ZPass. So you can drop that $3 to $2.85 by switching.)

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