Maine Turnpike drops draft response to Feds on cash at York Toll Plaza, RFP for major review

May 6, 2011

The Maine Turnpike Authority will not be submitting to the Feds the Violette-era response on the proposed new York toll plaza. Paul Violette's successor as chief executive Peter Mills has decided it would be prudent to take time for a full review of the Turnpike's old proposals before they go back to the US Army Corps of Engineer

The York toll plaza is the Turnpike's busiest and collects some 40% of total tolls on the Turnpike.

Spokesman Scott Tompkins says the Turnpike Authority will issue a request for proposals (RFP) for a full review of past Turnpike work and a fresh look at alternatives in York. He said the US Army Corps officer in charge, Jay Clement has told the Turnpike the Corps is in no hurry for a response to the hearing officer's list of questions, and the issues raised in his rejection of the Turnpike plan last year.

"No hurry"

"They said we can take as long as we like. There's no time line. So we want to take our time, get a full independent professional review, and be sure we make the right decision," said Tompkins.

This afternoon the Bangor Daily News reporter Matt Wickenheiser quoted chief executive Peter Mills as saying: "We've decided to take a completely fresh look at the toll (plaza at York). There's no immediate hurry."

New sites proposed

The US Army Corps the major permitting agency rejected the initial Turnpike proposal for a new longer and wider toll plaza to collect cash on the sides with open road electronic toll collection through the center, as recommended by in-house engineering consultants HNTB. Three new sites were proposed just north of York.

The existing all-stop-to-pay toll plaza is close by the York interchange and on a curve of the road, and therefore is unsuitable for expansion into a cash+ORT (open road toll) operation.

New sites identified on straighter stretches away from the interchange require major land acquisitions, condemnations of property and affect coastal habitat. Cost of a cash+ORT is also an issue - $35m to $45m vs $10m to $15m for an all-electronic (transponder plus license plate tolling) toll point, hardly wider than the regular highway.

There are challenges to be addressed in all-electronic collection of tolls from out-of-state motorists and Maine Turnpike has a large number of those. But these challenges are faced in differing degrees by tollers all around the country, and there is a major effort via the Alliance for Toll Interoperability to find solutions.

Think Again

City officials in nearby York plus local residents organized an effective campaign called Think Again, and with the City raised the money to hire a counter-consultant to HNTB - eTrans' Daryl Fleming a toll systems veteran who has worked many ORT and AET projects over 20 years. Fleming found "no scenario" under which cash toll collection could be justified at a new plaza even with pessimistic assumptions about non-collection losses.

Fleming's engineering and financial analysis seems to have influenced Jay Clements of the US Army Corps to reject the HNTB-written submission. Clements asked a series of pointed questions not yet answered by the Turnpike except perhaps in an unreleased draft by HNTB.

Think Again applaud the Turnpike's rethink

From York tonight Marshall Jarvis president of Think Again said he welcomed the Turnpike's decision to review its position on the need for a new cash collection toll plaza.

Jarvis: "The Turnpike has an opportunity now to harness innovative technology which can let traffic flow freely (by a toll point), rather than take large tracts of land to pave over so as to stop motorists to collect cash. It was a backwards looking approach (the Turnpike had) and I congratulate the new management there for this decision. We're celebrating here in south Maine tonight. It is good for everyone."

Tompkins, PR at the Turnpike, says Mills and other top staff are focussed at present on working with legislators to provide the accountability they want on the Turnpike's operations. But the procurement of a third party professional reviewer of the York toll plaza issue, he said, can proceed in parallel.

see (The Turnpike's position now subject to review)

BACKGROUND: The turmoil at the Maine Turnpike began in 2008 when the Authority identified four alternative sites for a huge new cash + open road toll plaza just north of the existing toll plaza in York.

Local representative Dawn Hill attempted to take up local concerns with the Turnpike and was amazed by her inability to even discuss the York toll plaza issue with Turnpike chief executive Paul Violette.

She is quoted today as saying repeated attempts to speak to him failed: "I never had a returned call, never."

That disregard led Hill eventually to use her position as co-chair of the legislature's government oversight committee to have the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) do a comprehensive investigation of the Turnpike's affairs.

The report which came out January this year led to the resignation of Paul Violette in March.

Major issue was his inability to account for, or explain, lavish use of gift cards bought on the Turnpike's account.

TOLLROADSnews 2011-05-06

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