Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Driving Expenses: Not all toll hikes are created equal

Published at

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.)
• For an additional 11 trips, switching to E-ZPass will let you avoid an increase and keep the same toll rate you had when paying cash. For example, driving to Portland North from Lewiston, Auburn, or Sabbatus will cost $2.25 cash or $1.75 with E-ZPass; the old rates were $1.75 cash and $1.50 with a pass.
• On long trips, E-ZPass savings increase. Driving the full length of the Turnpike, for example, from Augusta to York (or vice-versa) at the moment costs $5 in cash, or $4.80 with an E-ZPass. Starting in November, it will run you $7 cash or $6.45 E-ZPass. Rather than saving just 20 cents, you'll save 55 cents per trip.
• Very short trips can have wide cost variations depending on how you pay. At present, if you go from Wells to York, you pay $2 in cash but just 80 cents with an E-ZPass. That difference will only grow with the new rates: $3 cash, or 90 cents E-ZPass.
• Some trips that previously saw no savings will see modest breaks for E-ZPass users under the new rates. Drivers who used to enter at the Gray tolls heading to the Portland area didn't see any benefit to using E-ZPass, because they paid the same amount either way. Now, they'll save at least 10 cents each time.
If you're considering switching from cash to an E-ZPass, you should know a few more things:
• If you get an E-ZPass, it costs $10 plus 5 percent tax for the device. New Hampshire charges $8.90; Massachusetts gives them out for free.
• As in other states, you have to pre-load the device with at least $20 in credit, with tolls deducted from your balance as you drive, rather than shelling out cash. (There's a certain irony about paying up front to an organization so it can pay down its debts.)
• By the time the toll change takes effect, you'll be able to order an E-ZPass online in Maine — a new initiative, though New Hampshire and Massachusetts have had it for years. MTA spokesman Dan Morin says states with online ordering have significantly higher E-ZPass participation.
• If you want to sail through a toll area at highway speeds, you'll still need to go to New Hampshire for that modern convenience. In Maine, E-ZPassers have to sit in the traffic jams just like everyone else.