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In 1947, when the Authority cut the ribbon on the new road, the Maine Turnpike was the first superhighway built in the postwar era and one of only two modern toll highways in existence in the United States (the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940). With four wide, clearly marked lanes and a wide grass median, an innovative safety feature at the time, the Maine Turnpike provided a vision of the future of transportation. The highway was straight, swift, safe and efficient. Few people in Maine had ever had the chance to travel at 60 miles per hour. That was why, when the highway opened on a cold day on December 13, 1947, the Portland Press Herald dubbed it the “Mile-A-Minute” highway.
The Maine Turnpike was the first superhighway in the world to be paved entirely with asphalt—not concrete. This decision raised the eyebrows of highway engineers who thought concrete was the only material suitable to build highway lanes. Many skeptics from around the world were invited to see for themselves the value and durability asphalt under Maine’s extreme weather conditions and left impressed.
Back then, the amounts of snowfall during a Maine winter were legendary. In order to clear the Turnpike efficiently, the Turnpike commissioned what is believed to be the first left-handed snow plow in this country. This highway operations “first” was considered an important advance, and representatives from several of the country’s new superhighways came to witness the new plow in action. Today “lefthanders” are standard issue for highway maintenance crews throughout the nation.
Plans to construct a 66-mile extension of the Maine Turnpike to the state capitol in Augusta, including a four-mile spur to US Route 1 in Falmouth, began very soon after the first section opened. A recommendation from the Maine Good Roads Association in 1949 spurred the State Highway Commission to study the feasibility and potential impact of a Turnpike extension. In April of 1953, the Turnpike Authority issued $75 million in revenue bonds — $55 million to be used for construction.
The Turnpike extension was, at the time, the largest highway construction project in Maine history. Two thousand construction workers were employed from the spring of 1954 to the winter of 1955. Twenty million cubic yards of earth, sand and gravel, 145,000 barrels of cement, 350,000 tons of bituminous concrete, 47 million pounds of steel and 11.5 million gallons of asphalt was used to construct the highway extension. Ninety-one bridges were built, including an 846 foot span over the Androscoggin River at Lewiston.
On December 13, 1955, in Augusta, Governor Edmund S. Muskie cut the ribbon opening the Turnpike extension (Section II), eight years to the day the original toll highway opened for business in Portland. In 1956, the Federal Highway Act authorized the construction of the Interstate highway system and precluded the need to further extend the Turnpike.
In 1956, the first full year after the completion of the highway to Augusta, more than 3,808,382 vehicles used the road. In 2007, the Turnpike’s 60th year, total traffic on the Maine Turnpike had jumped to 63,387,400 vehicles (a 16-fold increase!). Traffic growth was particularly heavy during the late 1960s and early 1970s when, for several consecutive years, the Turnpike’s annual traffic volumes increased nearly 10 percent per year. As traffic volume increased, so did the interest to add more highway capacity to meet the traffic demands.
In 1971, Turnpike traffic reached the 10-million vehicle mark for the first time. In 1972, in order to handle projected growth, the Authority made plans to begin widening the Turnpike from four to six lanes from Kittery to Scarborough. The plan called for construction to occur over an eight-year project schedule.
Construction had barely begun on the first section, when the Maine Supreme Court ordered a halt to the project because of environmental concerns. The Court said the Maine Legislature would have to grant approval.
Debate began in the late 1970’s, to decide whether or not the Maine Turnpike should continue as a toll highway or become a “freeway.” Some citizens wanted the responsibility to maintain the roadway and construct new projects on the Turnpike placed under the jurisdiction of the Maine Department of Transportation. In 1982, members of the Maine Legislature passed a bill authorizing continuance of the Turnpike Authority and the tolls to operate the Turnpike, along with provisions to provide a 50 percent discount to regular commuters.
The Legislature also gave the Authority a directive to study the needs of new interchanges in urban regions to promote economic development and increased commercial activity. By allowing tolls to remain the Turnpikes revenue source, and the Turnpike Authority to manage the highway, valuable and increasingly limited state and federal transportation funding, generated by state and federal gas taxes, could be used to maintain the rest of Maine’s roads, bridges and highways.
Back then, nearly 45 percent of Turnpike toll revenue was generated from out-of-state visitors to Maine, thereby reducing the impact on a large segment of Maine gas tax payers who rarely, if at all, find their travels to include a trip on the Maine Turnpike. The legislation also directed the Turnpike to allocate toll revenue to the State Highway Fund to be used to make roadway improvements to other state roads and bridges.
In total, more than $120 million dollars of toll revenue was directed to state coffers from 1982, to 1997, in an attempt to reduce budget shortfalls within the state’s transportation fund. These fund transfers were discontinued in 1997, as important Turnpike infrastructure projects loomed and lawmakers recognized that toll revenue should be managed by the Turnpike Authority in order to maintain Maine’s economic lifeline in peak operating condition.
Traffic on the Turnpike continued to increase. Plans to begin the process of obtaining the necessary permits and legislative approval to widen the highway started in 1988. Once legislative approval was given, the work focused on addressing the requirements needed to obtain state and federal, environmental regulatory agency construction permits. After almost three years of study and negotiations, the Authority was provided with the necessary permits to begin the widening project.
Then state environmental groups began a petition drive forcing a referendum on the widening issue. In 1991, Maine voters stopped the widening project and approved the passage of the Sensible Transportation Policy Act (STPA), which requires an exploration of transportation alternatives to the widening and other state highway projects that might help relieve traffic congestion without the need to construct new projects or expand the existing highway infrastructure.
In the proceeding six years, the Authority engaged planning experts and hundreds of Maine citizens in a comprehensive review of alternative strategies. Several projects were developed or expanded in an effort to reduce congestion. These include more spaces to Turnpike park & ride lots, a new Turnpike Express, ZOOMBus commuter service, GOMaine, a rideshare and carpooling service and a new transportation educational program in York County to introduce kids and school teachers to transportation related issues and alternatives to single occupancy vehicles.
At the conclusion of the study, it was apparent that these alternatives were not enough to reduce traffic congestion on the Turnpike. In 1997, the Authority asked the Legislature to bring the widening question to referendum and Maine voters overwhelmingly favored the project. Nearly 30-years, two state referendums, countless traffic jams and crashes and several in-depth studies had passed. Finally, the Maine Turnpike Authority — and Maine’s citizens — were ready widen the heavily traveled highway.
The widening project was a complex construction project that included reconstruction of 30 bridges to accommodate the new third lane, as well as many important safety features. One of those new safety features was not even part of the paved highway. Engineers redesigned the grassy sideslopes leading to the edge of the highway with a reduced angle. That in turn, reduced the necessity for guardrail in many areas.
A cemetery, visible from the Turnpike and located along the highway in Kennebunk, became a landmark for millions of residents and visitors to Maine. The new lane came to within 3 feet of the edge of the cemetery. Many Turnpike travelers wanted to know what, if any, impact the widening would have on this piece of history. The Authority took pains to install guardrail and seasonal chain link fencing during the winter to protect it from snow plowing operations. New granite posts were added where needed, the headstones were treated with a weather proofing material and the general area was spruced up as part of the project. This has enhanced and protected the site to the appreciation of many locals and visitors to Maine.
In September 1997, the Authority launched New England’s “first” electronic toll collection (ETC) system called Transpass. The ETC technology available on the market in the early 1990’s had not evolved to a level whereby a standard device was commercially available to conduct multi-state transactions. Yet, the need to address growing traffic congestion at toll plazas increased the importance to utilize new technology to assist in toll collection, other than the 50-year practice of handing out and collecting toll tickets. Along with bringing in ETC, the Authority also converted to a new cash system. The new system charges a “fixed fare” for each vehicle class, paid upon entering the highway, and thereby eliminating the need to stop at the exit locations. The combination of these two systems reduced traffic stops at the entering tolls for ETC customers and eliminated stops upon exiting for all customers. These systems have reduced the need to add more toll lanes. It also has saved the Authority and Turnpike toll payers millions of dollars that would otherwise have been spent to add new lanes at toll plazas.
ETC has brought other benefits, as well. With travelers making fewer stops, there are fewer cars idling at toll plazas and that has significantly reduced air pollution at the plazas.
In February 2005, the Turnpike Authority converted from its early generation of ETC technology to E-ZPass, a system that is now accepted on highway, tunnel and bridge facilities across 15 states and at more than 40 toll facilities along the eastern seaboard and beyond.
In an effort to eliminate redundancy of Maine interstate exit numbers, the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) and the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) converted its numerical based exit numbering system to a mileage based system. Now Maine highway travelers can determine distance from their destination based on mile marked signs. The new numbering system also makes it easier to find and attend to disabled vehicles more quickly and provides us with a more sustainable approach to numbering new interchanges that may be constructed in the future.