The Universal Notebook: Paying the price of admission

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So the Maine Turnpike Authority has announced plans to jack up toll rates to offset lost revenues due to the pandemic. I guess no one should have been surprised – or pleased.

In 2019, drivers paid almost $140 million in turnpike tolls. Last year, they paid only $115 million, a $35 million drop, but since the MTA had projected toll revenues of $175 million pre-pandemic, it now feels the need to make up for a $60 million “deficit” that isn’t real. It’s just that they have all those construction projects to pay for.

Initially, I was pissed at the turnpike’s plan to increase the toll at York from $3 to $4 and to increase the E-ZPass rate from 7.7 cents to 8 cents per mile. Then I read the following in an MTA press release: “71 percent of the increase will be borne by out-of-state users. The increased cost for in-state users is an average of about 20 cents per trip.”

Well, alright then. If the MTA can be believed we may be onto something big. If we want to save Maine from the motoring hordes to the south, then we simply need to let the roads deteriorate (a brilliant idea I stole from colleague Al Diamon years ago) and to charge hefty fees to use them. That will slow traffic down, generate much-needed revenue, and discourage all but the hardiest, most well-heeled tourists.

In case you hadn’t noticed, traffic is very heavy these days along Maine’s highways and byways, probably due to a pent-up demand to travel and a desire to escape to somewhere uncrowded and safe. As always, however, tourists bring their problems with them and visit them on those unfortunate enough to live in places where people want to vacation.    

It used to be that the Maine Turnpike, Route 1, and Interstate 95 in the summer were crammed with cars from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York. Now I routinely see cars from Florida, Texas, and California – all places we want to avoid. 

Maine is under siege and nowhere is that more obvious than Acadia National Park, where park authorities were forced this summer to institute a $6 reservation fee to drive up Cadillac Mountain because 450 carloads were routinely competing for the 150 mountaintop parking spaces. Not sure who thought it was a good idea to build a road and a parking lot on Cadillac, but there you have it. I hear they have one up Mount Washington as well. What’s next, a Katahdin autobahn?

Charging more for access is one obvious solution to the problem of tourist pollution.

Acadia National Park currently charges a $30-per-vehicle entrance fee. The prevailing wisdom is that national parks should be affordable to everyone, but that’s pure nonsense. There are no poor people lining up to summit Cadillac.

Once gas, food, lodging, and fees are totaled, it costs an average of $3,300 for a couple to spend two weeks at a national park. And that’s cheap compared to something like $6,000 a week at a Disney resort. So if we can discourage park use by charging more for it, I say do it.

Jack up the tolls, jack up the entrance fees, and, by all means, let’s start charging cruise ship passengers. The average passenger spends only about $50 in each port of call, so Portland should just charge them $50 each to get off the ship.

Bottom line: Make tourists and travelers pay for the problems they cause and the damage they do.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.