Commentary

Will pandemic-induced toll increases prove to be permanent?

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The Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) is looking to increase tolls across the Pine Tree State this fall.

The changes include an increase of one dollar–from $3 to $4–for drivers who pay in cash at the York toll plaza and the slashing of discounts for frequent E-ZPass-holding travelers.

As it stands now, customers who have an E-ZPass get 25 percent off if they make 30 or more trips per month. That discount would be slashed to 20 percent under the MTA’s plan. Drivers who make 40 or more trips per month currently get a 50 percent discount, but that will shrink to just 40 percent with the new price hikes.

The toll cost just to have an E-ZPass would increase as well, from 7.7 cents a mile to 8 cents a mile.

The MTA cited a lack of traffic last year due to the pandemic as the reason for increasing the prices. They say that tolls brought in $60 million less than expected last year because of the traffic slump.

The new increases are said to generate an additional $18 million in annual revenue for MTA, which does not receive any state or federal funding.

According to MTA Director Peter Mills, traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels, but a toll increase is needed to keep the agency’s construction plan afloat.

So if these toll increases are solely due to pandemic-induced revenue shortfalls, will they ever come back down?

Not likely.

In different states across the northeast, limited toll increases have been promised before and many of them inevitably stay elevated, or even get worse.

Boston’s Tobin Bridge was supposed to have tolls only until enough money was raised to pay off the $27 million in bonds that were given to finance its construction. That deadline came and went, and the tolls, which were only charged in the southbound direction, never came down. Now, tolls are charged in both directions on the bridge.

Tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike were set to be removed in 2017 after the bonds that were issued to finance that road’s construction were paid off. The tolls are still there, and you can bet they aren’t coming down.

The tolls on the New York Thruway were supposed to be removed in 1996. Those, too, are still up. Not only are they still there, but the State of New York has been sending taxpayer funds to the Thruway Authority as a cash injection to prevent unpopular toll hikes. The reason is the Thruway spends its toll revenue on things other than the road that is actually being tolled. And they call that a “user fee?”

The point is, even toll hikes that set out to be temporary rarely end up being temporary. And the proposed changes from MTA don’t mention “temporary” at all. They just use a temporary problem to institute a permanent revenue increase.

A better solution would be something closer to what former Gov. Paul LePage recommended in 2017, though the proposal still needs some fine tuning. If the MTA gets rid of all tolls except the York toll, and charges a higher price for that singular entryway into Maine, the costs would primarily be passed on to out-of-staters and tourists, thus saving Mainers money.

The MTA is holding three meetings next month to take public comment on the proposed price increases. You can find more information and make your voice heard to them here. There is also a box to leave a comment through an online form.

Using a temporary economic crisis to institute what will likely be a permanent price increase on hardworking Mainers is simply gross. Don’t be surprised if, once the pandemic is behind us, those tolls never come down.

About Nick Linder

Nicholas Linder, of Cincinnati, is a communications Intern for Maine Policy Institute. He is going into his second year of studying finance and public policy analysis at The Ohio State University. On campus, he is involved with Students Consulting for Nonprofit Organizations and Business for Good.

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