(TNS) -- YORK, Maine — Rep. Lydia Blume is working to introduce emergency legislation that would require the Maine Turnpike Authority to use all-electronic tolling (AET) at new and rebuilt toll facilities – most pertinently the York plaza.
The bill was initially rejected by House and Senate leadership, which must approve all bills introduced in the Legislature's second term that begins in January. Only emergency bills are considered by this group, the Legislative Council, as bills are supposed to be filed in the first term of the two-year session. Unfazed, Blume, a York Democrat, said nearly all bills are initially rejected, and she has requested the council reconsider its decision at its next meeting Nov. 30.
She said she was inspired to file the legislation because she believes the entire state has a stake in the MTA's decision on toll collection, and the Legislature has a role in bringing this issue before citizens through the legislative process. With the York toll project on a trajectory to begin, she feels an urgency to bring the issue forward now.
The MTA received approval from both the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection to build a $40 million "open-road toll" plaza in York with both cash lanes and highway-speed lanes, like the plaza on Interstate 95 in Hampton, New Hampshire.
The project has been put on hold pending the outcome of an appeal of the DEP decision by the town of York and the citizens group Think Again.
Blume said her bill at this point is only in title form, and the actual wording of it would take place if it passes muster with the council. The title states AET must be used for any new or rebuilt toll plazas in Maine. The ultimate goal, she said, would be to force the MTA to abandon cash collection altogether anywhere in its tolling system. By extension, that would mean abandoning the current project in favor of an AET system.
"I was thinking that other states have gone through the legislative process on this issue. Massachusetts has AET. New Hampshire introduced legislation. They're converting in New York," Blume said. "I think the time is now. The technology is happening now. It just makes sense."
She said, in her mind, it is "unwise" to invest in a plaza that could be obsolete in the near future. While the DEP and Army Corps are required to look at the project from an environmental perspective, "the issues are broader than that. Safety is huge. And it's in everyone's interest to make sure we have a good traffic flow into Maine – that people can get into the state quickly. We are a tourist state and we rely on tourism. All of Maine should be concerned about how people are entering the state."
She said with the York project going full speed ahead, it seemed an appropriate time to bring this issue to a broader, statewide audience. "I want there to be an opportunity for the public to weigh in on it," she said. "This is a very important decision that the MTA is making that will affect tolling in Maine for many years to come. This is an opportunity to say, 'Wait a minute. This is something we need to look at.'"
She said she doesn't know if her bill will be successful on appeal to the Legislative Council. Members of Think Again are mobilizing to call House and Senate leaders in the upcoming weeks – as well as Gov. Paul LePage, who just may extend a sympathetic ear. In May, he introduced an unsuccessful bill to eliminate the Maine Turnpike Authority and get rid of tolling across Maine except when entering the state.
Marshall Jarvis of Think Again said he intends to contact the governor's office, and others in the group may do so as well. Meanwhile, the group has put out an email blast to members asking them to call council members.
"This is a good idea. This is the type of thing that ought to be pursued," he said. "We're very enthusiastic about this bill. If we don't do anything they're going to go ahead and build this plaza. It reinforces in my mind the stupidity of doing this and then undoing it later."
MTA Executive Director Peter Mills said he didn't have much to say about Blume's bill, especially considering the Legislative Council rejected it during the first go-around. But he said, "to add some perspective, there are 19 locations where we collect tolls. At each, we collect by both E-ZPass and cash. Fifteen of them have been converted to new electronics. One other is half way constructed. That leaves three more including York. Of the 16 converted or nearly converted facilities, six of them required environmental permits that were granted without controversy."
Meanwhile, Think Again and the town of York in mid-October filed an appeal of the DEP decision in Kennebec County Superior Court. The appeal centers on a 2014 MTA study that the town and Think Again have long contended is out of date "and can no longer be relied upon to evaluate whether AET is a practicable alternative," the appeal states. Because the DEP relied on this study, its subsequent order granting approval of a permit is "unlawful...and constitutes an abuse of the Department's discretion," the appeal further states.
According to Scott Anderson, attorney for the town and Think Again, and confirmed by Mills, the project will not begin until after a judge has ruled in this matter. Anderson said it was filed in Kennebec County because that's where Augusta is located, and that court often hears appeals of state agency decisions. He said he expects it will be March 2018 before a judge rules on the appeal.
©2017 the Foster's Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.