The Phantom Tollbooth
The Maine Turnpike Authority moves in mysterious ways.
- By: Colin Woodard
If the Piscataqua River Bridge is Maine’s front door, the York Toll Plaza is where everyone ponies up their admission fee.
The seventeen-lane barrier straddles what is far and away the most important, well trafficked, and unavoidable road in the state: the section of the Maine Turnpike from York to South Portland, which serves as Maine’s only controlled-access highway link to the rest of the country. Everybody and everything gets dinged at York for using the road, with the tolls collected not by the state, but rather by the Maine Turnpike Authority, a quasi-commercial entity straddling the line between public agency and corporate citizen.
Of late, the future of the toll booths have had the Turnpike Authority and the town of York locked in a bruising fight that’s raised a perennial question: Are the citizens of Maine well-served by having the most vital piece of infrastructure controlled by an entity largely unaccountable to their elected representatives?
The issue at hand: how best to replace the existing toll plaza, which has become intolerably expensive to maintain, largely because the assemblage is sinking into the swamp in which it was built forty-one years ago. The location is so bad — sandwiched between a steep, curving slope and an interchange — that the Turnpike Authority would like to abandon it altogether to build a mile or two up the road.
“The existing location doesn’t meet the engineering criteria and presents a real challenge,” says authority spokesperson Dan Paradee, adding that annual repair bills at the existing plaza now run into the hundreds of thousands. Moving the plaza up the road to the north will be safer and some $20 million cheaper than rebuilding it where it is, he notes. (Plans originally entailed taking several homes, but now require only the taking of about seven acres of right-of-way and damage to two to four acres of wetlands.)
The fight is now nearing its final conclusion, with the town likely to be the loser. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently reviewing four options to replace the plaza, and will likely endorse most or all of them for further investigation. None of the options embrace the opponents’ preferred approach, which has the critics wondering why that is.
Local residents have been skeptical of the Turnpike Authority’s plans since they were first floated five years ago. Some still prefer the plaza stays at its current site, avoiding the need to seize property and deface the landscape elsewhere. But the crux of the opposition centers on what kind of toll plaza the authority should be investing in: a tried-and-true system mixing high-speed electronic tolling lanes with conventional cash ones, or the cutting-edge plaza of the future some experts believe will soon become universal.
York activists want the whiz-bang system of the future, not least because it requires no bigger footprint than the existing roadway, eliminating disruptions to the highway’s neighbors. So-called all-electronic tolling is just that: a cashless, practically invisible system that collects tolls electronically (if you have an E-Z Pass transponder) or after a computer identifies your car via a video image of your license plate (if you do not). It all happens without any action on your part as you whiz under a gantry at whatever speed you’re accustomed to. Because there are no booths, extra lanes, or toll collectors, construction and operating costs would be a small fraction of the authority’s solution: about $7 million to build and $187,000 a year, instead of $35 million and $525,000 annually.
“There are no barriers, no widening of the road, no environmental damage,” says Marshall Jarvis, the owner of a precision cutting tool business who founded York’s principal opposition group, Think Again. “It would actually reduce maintenance, improve safety, and reduce everybody’s cost of coming to Maine.” Turnpike officials, he says, “have their heads in the sand.”
Convinced that all-electronic tolling is the way to go, the town of York has bet money on it, shelling out $15,000 to get a second opinion from eTrans Group, an Atlanta-based toll road consultancy. “We requested that the turnpike do this, but they wouldn’t, so we didn’t have any other alternative,” says Michael Estes, chairman of the York Board of Selectmen, who expects to have and release results before Memorial Day. “Other states are making this work and we think we should be able to, too.”
Some outside experts agree. “You don’t want to pick a technology that’s going to be obsolete in ten or fifteen years,” says Joseph M. Giglio, a transportation expert at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration. “All-electronic tolling is where the technology is going.”
The technological element is not at issue, notes Peter Samuel, editor of TollRoad News, who points out that highways in Ontario, Texas, and Colorado already use all-electronic tolling to good effect. In fact, the plaza the turnpike wants to build will feature all the elements of all-electronic tolling, but only for four highway-speed lanes. “The days of cash collection are really numbered, and in a few years, they’ll all be gone,” Samuel says.
Such analysis has the turnpike’s critics thinking the worst about the agency, which they suspect has a perverse incentive to always be building and carrying bonded debt so as to ensure its continued independence. The Turnpike Authority’s structure doesn’t allay suspicious minds: a self-supporting commercial entity that operates largely beyond the reach of legislators, but with governmental powers like eminent domain and immunity from property taxes. (The governor appoints the board of directors — many of them politically connected attorneys — who serve seven-year terms.) Those who squint left see a corporate entity fattened by near monopoly control of overland access to the rest of the United States; those who squint right see an unaccountable government bureaucracy that wastefully replicates many administrative and logistical resources of the Maine Department of Transportation.
The result is a litany of complaints. Smart Growth advocate Christian MilNeil is upset that the turnpike has every incentive to get people to drive more when energy security, climate change, and sprawl busting imperatives cry out for investments in public transportation. Jarvis hates to see the agency take on debt for wasteful projects while passing the costs on to the millions of travelers who use the road each year. “If DOT does something we don’t want, we basically call our [legislative] reps and they take action,” says Estes. “That’s not the case with the turnpike.”
“I think we need to look again at combining those two,” Representative Windol Weaver (R-York) says of the turnpike and MDOT, and if re-elected, he plans to introduce a bill next year to do just that.
It’s all been tried before, but never come to pass. Maine’s previous governor, Angus King, advocated merging the organizations while on the campaign trail but once in office, he found it didn’t make sense. The critical element was the authority’s ability to borrow money more cheaply precisely because it is firewalled away from the state’s budget, credit rating, and legislative whimsy. “We determined the efficiencies we’d gain just didn’t outweigh the transaction costs,” King recalls. “It would have been a big struggle and it just wasn’t worth the hassle.”
John Melrose was the commissioner of MDOT at the time and says a merger would serve Mainers poorly by attaching what is widely regarded as the state’s best-maintained highway to a department on a starvation budget. “The resource constraints they are confronting are so severe that I think you would take a great risk putting them together,” says Melrose, now a transportation industry lobbyist. “Frankly, if I had to pick, I might opt for the DOT to be merged with the turnpike rather than the other way around!”
That’s because for all the suspicion it arouses, the authority gets high marks from industry observers and customer satisfaction surveys alike. Its management of a massive $133 million widening project was completed under budget, and its credit rating remains excellent largely because its operating profits from toll revenues go to improving roads or paying loans, rather than being diverted into the rest of the state’s highway system. “It’s a model that works and has removed the authority from the sort of political pressures that obstruct policy implementation,” says former authority board chairman Sam Zaitlin. “If something works well and has worked well, there’s no reason to change it.”
The authority’s rationale for not going to all-electronic tolling at York can’t be easily dismissed, either.
A system that works well for highways used primarily by in-state commuters might fall on its face on a road with a high proportion of casual users from out of state. While the system would work wonderfully for E-Z Pass holders (both from in-state and out-of-state), they currently account for just 58 percent of revenue collected at York. The rest would be identified by video, but processing, mailing, and collecting bills would be expensive and, in the case of out-of-state motorists, impossible to enforce. If none of the latter paid up, the system could forfeit nearly a fifth of its overall revenue.
“We anticipate that there would be some revenue leakage with our preferred plan,” as cheaters rush through the high-speed lanes, says Mr. Paradee, “but it would pale in comparison if we went to all electronic.”
Eliminating cash lanes may have some unexpected downsides. There would be records of every vehicle that passes York, which erodes privacy. People without credit cards or bank accounts would have to make a special trip to pay their bills. And everyone who’s sent a bill can expect a hefty administrative fee that would likely be larger than the toll itself. Mainers could get rebellious if the turnpike compels them to pay (by ordering a hold on their automobile registration) while out-of-state cheats get away with it.
Indeed, all of these considerations convinced the New Hampshire DOT to replace the big Hampton Toll Plaza on Interstate-95 with the very model the authority wants to build in York. (The road has a very similar user base.)
“With all-electronic tolling you’re a customer whether you like it or not,” explains New Hampshire DOT spokesman Bill Boynton, apparently lowering the psychological barrier to cheating. Only just over 1 percent of non-E-Z Pass drivers blast through the toll booths instead of paying cash to a collector, he notes, but 7 to 8 percent will stiff the system when it comes to paying a bill that arrives in the mail well after the fact. “That means the turnpike is forced into the bill collection business.”
Perhaps it’s best to keep some coins in your center console, at least for a few years yet.
- By: Colin Woodard