The Maine Turnpike Authority is granting a reprieve to commuter-plan customers who were to be hit especially hard by toll increases set to take effect next month.
Reacting to intense opposition from some heavy turnpike users, the turnpike authority plans to give bigger toll discounts for commuters and other heavy users of E-ZPass, at least for the next eight months.
Starting Nov. 1, motorists who drive more than 40 one-way trips on the turnpike in a month will get the maximum 50 percent discount off the new E-ZPass rate of 7.7 cents per mile, the turnpike’s board decided Thursday. Those driving from 30-39 trips per month will get a 25 percent discount.
The earlier increase, approved in August, is now scheduled to take effect in July. Under that plan, motorists making more than 40 trips on the turnpike in a month will get a 20 percent discount and those making 30-39 trips a 10 percent discount.
During the eight-month reprieve, an E-ZPass user commuting five days a week between Exit 45 in South Portland and points south of the York toll plaza will save $2.90 a day, paying $58 a month instead of $92.80 per month, the rate to be charged after the discount drops to 20 percent July 1.
The increased discount is expected to cost the turnpike about $600,000 over eight months, but should not have a significant impact on the turnpike’s long-term financial stability, said Daniel Morin, spokesman for the authority.
Last summer, the authority adopted a plan to increase tolls as a way to pay for increasing bond payments that are coming due in the next several years, as well as ongoing bridge and highway maintenance. The current toll increase is intended to address turnpike revenue needs for the next 30 years.
Some motorists railed against the proposed increase in toll rates, which would have tripled the cost for some by replacing the long-standing commuter discount plan, which allowed for unlimited travel for a set quarterly fee.
Daniel Hett, a North Berwick resident who is the administrator of a medical practice in Lewiston, said his turnpike expenses of about $30 per month would triple under the plan adopted in the summer. He said the accelerated discount is an improvement.
“I’m not impressed because I have to pay double, but it’s better than paying triple,” he said. “I run a medical office. I can’t imagine levying those kinds of increases on anybody, especially in this economy.”
About 23,000 drivers participate in the turnpike authority’s E-ZPass commuter program, which offers discounts to frequent users of specific stretches of the highway. On Nov. 1, when turnpike tolls are due to increase, the commuter program will be replaced with the volume-based discount system that applies to all E-ZPass users and is designed more like a traditional user fee.
The magnitude of the increase to customers using the commuter plan has hit harder because those users have seen only one or two increases, depending on their route, in the past 30 years, compared with seven increases for cash and standard E-ZPass customers, Morin said.
“Rather than those customers paying 50 percent of the cash rate, some are paying 60 to 70 percent lower than the E-ZPass rate,” Morin said.
The commuter plans are popular not only because of the cost of driving to and from work on the turnpike, but because they allow unlimited travel within those two designated points, making it easier for some motorists to visit the Maine Mall or other service centers without paying for each trip.
“For equity and fairness, the policy decision was made that every Maine E-ZPass customer pays the same toll when making the same trip and that the turnpike will have volume discounts for frequent travelers,” Morin said.
While the 50 percent discount endorsed Thursday is scheduled to expire after eight months, the proposal also calls for the authority’s staff to review actual traffic and revenue numbers after six months. That way, if the much smaller discount is not warranted, the board could make changes or extend the more favorable discount, board Chairman Daniel Wathen said in a statement issued by the authority.
An increase in traffic would generate more revenue, and an increase in motorists using E-ZPass would reduce expenses, both of which could influence the analysis, Morin said.
The new bulk discount program makes it more difficult for motorists to carpool, because households can have only one E-ZPass account, said Brandon Wohl. He regularly drives between South Portland and Kittery but takes turns driving with someone else, so neither will qualify for a significant bulk discount, he said.
He expects to pay at least $50 a month more than he is now.
“It’s definitely going to make a hit (on my budget),” he said. “I’ve looked into doing van pools or adding another person in our commute group.”
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: