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Why Do We Pay Tolls to Use the Turnpike?

Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection

Toll roads are funny, especially if you moved to Maine from one of the (almost half of) states that doesn’t have them.

If you’re paying a toll every day to get to work, Maine’s Interstate 95 Turnpike might be a really sore subject for you. So you might be wondering:

Why do I have to pay to drive on the Maine Turnpike?

Well, love it or hate it, the Maine Turnpike — the stretch of I-95 from Kittery to Augusta — is funded entirely by money from tolls, with a little thrown in from the rent on those service centers by the side of the road.

That’s in contrast to Maine’s other state highways, which are run by Maine’s Department of Transportation. They’re funded in the state budget, mostly by state and federal gas taxes and other funding, by vehicle fees, and by bonding.

Now, paying to drive on a road doesn’t always feel great; as Bruce Van Note, director of policy and planning at the Maine Turnpike Authority, puts it, it’s “very overt. There are tollbooths. You sit there and stop and you pay. So it’s like, you’re reminded you’re paying for that service.”

By contrast, everyone’s paying for DOT roads — less visibly. Van Note says if all Mainers had to split the cost of the Turnpike, it would add a lot of expense that would have to be spread out among Maine’s not-very-many residents – more on that in a moment.

But here’s the thing: Out-of-staters are footing a lot of the bill for the highway. Thanks mostly to discounts that drivers get through having a Maine EZ-Pass, out-of-state drivers, including long-distance truckers, pay about 66 percent of tolls.

Why does Maine even have a turnpike?

Driving from Kittery to Augusta now takes about an hour and a half; but back in the early 1940s, it could take much, much longer, thanks to congestion along Route 1, which was the main road between the two at the time.

In 1941, the Legislature, pushed by a small group of Maine community leaders and Rep. Joseph Sayward of Kennebunk, created the Maine Turnpike Authority.

After political wrangling, studies, and so forth, the first section of the highway, between Kittery and Portland, opened in 1947, and the extension, which went to Augusta, opened in 1955.

So that explains why we have a big road, but it doesn’t really answer the question. Maybe a better answer comes from Van Note. He says, basically, building a turnpike was the only way to get an interstate highway built.

“The federal government had not gotten into that business yet, and user-supported toll highways were common throughout the world,” he says.

Why is only part of I-95 a toll road?

Originally the intention was to build a highway that went all the way up to Fort Kent, and fund that whole construction with state bonds, but in 1956, the U.S. Congress got into the road building business when it created the Interstate Highway System and federal money became available to build the highway from Augusta to Fort Kent.

Who runs the Maine Turnpike, and is it costing me money?

The Maine Turnpike authority is what’s referred to as a “quasi-independent agency,” a “quasi-public agency,” or a “quasi-governmental agency”. That basically means it’s run by a board, with its own revenue stream, but in association with the state.

Is it costing you money? Well, when you pay the toll, yes. But not through your taxes: The MTA’s website says it hasn’t ever used federal or state tax dollars — instead, it’s funded mostly by tolls. The MTA finances big construction projects, like the $135 million widening of the turnpike that finished in 2004, with bonds.

Credit Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection
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Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection

Has anyone ever tried to get rid of the Turnpike?

There’s long been resentment from people who have to pay to drive on the Turnpike, particularly by people in Androscoggin County who feel they’re being excessively charged — see this petition and this article, for example. But those efforts are really more about modifying the toll system than eliminating the turnpike itself.

The Turnpike did have a brush with death in 1981. When the MTA was originally established back in the 1940s, the intention had been to dissolve it when the bonds were paid back — by 1983 the latest. Those bonds were in fact paid back by 1981, and the turnpike was ready to be turned over to the DOT to run as a free highway.

But there was a bit of a wrinkle, in the form of the gas tax. Thanks to the Arab oil embargo of 1973, gas had tripled in price, and people were also buying less gas because of the cost and because they were driving more fuel-efficient cars.

The idea of raising the gas tax to cover the costs of running the road was, to say the least, politically unpopular. Moreover, as MTA Executive Director Peter Mills says at that time, half the tolls were being paid for by out-of-staters, and “there was no stomach for the shifting the burden to the gas tax, about 83 percent of which was paid by Mainers.”

Without a big increase, the gas tax wouldn’t have been enough to cover the costs of running the Turnpike, and in fact the tax wasn’t covering the costs of running the DOT. Ultimately, the state kept the tolls, directed that they be increased and took a quarter of the total toll revenue into the DOT’s Highway Fund until the mid-’90s.

To soften the blow of the toll increases, the state asked the MTA to institute a discount program (a predecessor of the EZ-Pass program) that would favor frequent users.

So that was the early ’80s – but what about now? Mills says that to turn the Turnpike over to the DOT would require raising the gas tax by at least 10 cents a gallon — from 30 cents to 40 cents — just to pay for maintenance and repairs. It would also cost the state more money since the MTA pays its workers a substantially higher wage than does the DOT.

Moreover, the idea of increasing the gas tax remains politically unpopular – the last time it was increased was during Angus King’s period as governor — and the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage ended the inflation-indexed increase to the gas tax in 2011.

There is, incidentally, some discussion of raising the gas tax now, when gas prices are low, to cover the cost of $168 million in needed DOT highway repairs.

But gas taxes aren’t the only thing — Mills says the MTA also has about $380 million in outstanding bonds (for widening the road, and other projects) that the state would need to either pay back, or take on, if it took over the Turnpike.

Did we miss something? Have you heard a different story? And do you have a burning question about something Maine-y that you've been dying to have answered? If so, use this form to ask your question — or email nflaherty@mpbn.net.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.