Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Turnpike tolls go up - again

Published in the Portland Phoenix; co-written with Katrina Botelho

As if living in Maine wasn't expensive enough, on Sunday, tolls on the Maine Turnpike will increase for the second time in four years, and a year earlier than originally planned.

So prepare to pay more, or drive slower. The Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) is pushing you to buy an E-ZPass. Their campaign includes TV ads that describe the program as "too good to pass up" and suggest that people who wait in line to pay cash at toll plazas are lame losers. (Naturally the commercials don't mention the public-transit options, which cost even less, and lower your carbon footprint to boot.)

The pay-as-you-go (cash) toll rate will be $1 at every exit where the tolls are now 60 cents (a 67 percent increase), $2 at the York plaza (up 15 percent from $1.75), $1.75 at New Gloucester (up 40 percent from $1.25), and $1.25 at the West Gardiner interchange between I-95 and I-295 (up 25 percent from $1).

If you want a discount, you'll have to open your wallet before you get on the highway. First, you'll have to buy an E-ZPass device, which costs $25. You can then choose to pay the commuter rate, a flat quarterly fee for unlimited travel between any two exits, or front the system at least $20 in toll pre-payments at a discounted rate per toll. You pay in advance, but you pay less than you would if you used the cash lanes.

The MTA adopted this fee structure in preference to an alternate plan that would have been more expensive for commuters and might have pushed more drivers to public transit — for example the ZOOM bus, which runs from downtown Portland to Saco and Biddeford.

Surprise: the MTA didn't want to encourage that; they need the money. This toll increase is projected to raise $20.1 million, ostensibly to be spent on highway and bridge repairs. But be skeptical. The MTA faces skyrocketing maintenance costs (for example, road salt costs 83 percent more than it did four years ago), and needs to come up with $12 million in cash by November to offset a recent drop in its credit rating.

Little wonder, then, that the MTA decided to reschedule the toll hike for this year, rather than 2010, as originally planned. But they might get what's coming to them if drivers decide they've had enough, and decide to leave home or work earlier instead of paying to rush.

Turning off the Pike might be even easier than it seems. The trip from Saco to Portland is the same distance, though admittedly nine minutes longer, if you take Route 1. But if you save the dollar, you're effectively paying yourself $6.67 an hour for driving. Sounds like a pretty good rate.