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FreightWaves Classics: Maine Turnpike carries traffic in the Pine Tree State

Maine is the northeasternmost U.S. state. And while it looks huge on maps, it is the 12th-smallest by area. It also ranks 41st in population and is the 13th-least densely populated of the 50 U.S. states. In fact, its population density is 41.3 people per square mile, which makes it the least densely populated state east of the Mississippi River. As of the 2010 census, Maine was also the most rural state, with only 38.7% of its population living within urban areas.

Map of Maine.

However, Maine is a major tourist destination. The state is known for its jagged, rocky coastline; low, rolling mountains; beautiful waterways; and heavily forested interior. That may be one reason why Maine decided to build a turnpike in the era before there were any interstate highways (let the tourists pay the tolls…). 


What is a turnpike? A current definition would be “a high-speed highway, especially one maintained by tolls.”

The term “turnpike” was first used in Great Britain, where there were roads that required fees or tolls to access them. The name came from the use of revolving gates at the entrances of turnpikes that prevented their use until a toll was paid. The gates originally had pikes (a long thrusting spear used extensively by infantry before the invention of the musket) to guard access to the road. So the revolving gates would “turn” and were guarded by “pikes.” Thus, “turnpikes.”

An early turnpike toll station. (Image:
An early turnpike toll station. (Image:

The first turnpikes in the United States began to be built after the Revolutionary War. Over time in the U.S. turnpike came to mean a toll road rather than a toll gate. 

Creating the Maine Turnpike Authority

The Pennsylvania Turnpike was the first modern turnpike in the U.S. It opened on October 1, 1940. At the time, its design was termed an engineering marvel. It was primarily a four-lane roadway, and was referred to as “America’s First Superhighway.” When it first opened, it was just 160 miles long. Its length now is over 500 miles. 

The logo of the Maine Turnpike. (Image: Maine Turnpike Authority)
The logo of the Maine Turnpike. (Image: Maine Turnpike Authority)

The Maine Turnpike was the second modern turnpike. Its governing body, the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) was created in 1941 by the Maine legislature. The MTA was to be (and is) an independent state agency; it was instructed to construct a highway from “some point at or near Kittery to some point at or near Fort Kent.” At that time, it was the largest construction project in Maine history. 

Construction workers build the decking on the bridge over the Saco River. (Photo:
Construction workers build the decking on the bridge over the Saco River. (Photo:

A champion and innovative financing

The Maine Turnpike was championed by Rep. Joseph T. Sayward of Kennebunk and a small group of community leaders “who decided the time had come to invest in a modern highway that would provide safe and speedy access to the state’s towns and cities.”  Until then, Route 1, which follows Maine’s coast, was the primary road between Kittery and Portland. Traffic was becoming heavier and at times it would take most of the day to travel between the two cities (a distance of less than 60 miles). The Maine State Highway Department conducted studies regarding widening or relocating portions of Route 1, but that was not feasible. 

At the same time, many business owners worried that a new road would mean that tourists would bypass the businesses along Route 1. Despite these concerns, Sayward and his group went forward with plans for the turnpike, knowing how important highway travel would be for the future of Maine.

Although the survey, design and securing of funding for the first section of the turnpike (a 45-mile, four-lane divided highway) took five years to complete, the construction took less than two years.

The MTA used innovative financing methods to fund the road construction. It leveraged funds using revenue bonds. Private and institutional investors bought more than $20 million of these bonds, financing the first construction. Therefore, the road was built without state or federal funds. Bondholders were repaid from toll revenues. The use of revenue bonds by the MTA created a national model for funding major infrastructure projects by municipalities and states that is still widely used.

A turnpike construction photo re-released on the turnpike's 70th anniversary in 2017. (Photo: MTA)
A turnpike construction photo re-released on the turnpike’s 70th anniversary in 2017. (Photo: MTA)

Opening the first section of the turnpike

The first four-lane section of the turnpike opened on December 13, 1947, and ran between Kittery and South Portland. The Maine Turnpike was the first superhighway built after the end of World War II. It had four wide, clearly marked lanes and a wide grass median, which was an innovative safety feature at the time. Perhaps most importantly, the turnpike was “straight, swift, safe and efficient.” When it opened, the Portland Press Herald named it the “Mile-A-Minute” highway.

The opening of the first section of the Maine Turnpike - December 13, 1947. (Photo:
The opening of the first section of the Maine Turnpike – December 13, 1947. (Photo:

It was also the first superhighway in the world paved entirely with asphalt – not concrete. The decision to use asphalt was made because of its durability, particularly with Maine’s extreme weather conditions. 

With the first section of the turnpike completed, construction plans for a 66-mile extension to Augusta, as well as a four-mile spur to US Route 1 in Falmouth, began. The TMA issued $55 million in revenue bonds in April 1953 to build the extension, which was completed in late 1955.

An ad to publicize the company's involvement in the turnpike construction. (Photo: Bangor Public Library Digital Collections)
An ad to publicize the company’s involvement in the turnpike construction. (Photo: Bangor Public Library Digital Collections)

At the time, the extension was the largest highway construction project in Maine history. More than 2,000 construction workers built the highway from the spring of 1954 to the winter of 1955. In addition to the roadway, 91 bridges had to be constructed, including an 846-foot span over the Androscoggin River at Lewiston.

Gov. Edmund S. Muskie cut the ribbon opening the second phase of the turnpike on December 13, 1955. It was exactly eight years after the first section of the Maine Turnpike opened. 

During 1956, more than 3.8 million motor vehicles traveled on the Maine Turnpike. In 2007, which was the turnpike’s 60th anniversary, the Maine Turnpike’s total traffic had increased 16-fold – to over 63.3 million vehicles. Because of the dramatic increase in traffic volume, calls to add more capacity to the turnpike were made.

There are many now classic cars in this photo of cars on the turnpike. (Photo: MTA)
There are many now classic cars in this photo of cars on the turnpike. (Photo: MTA)

Turnpike traffic crossed the 10-million vehicle per year threshold in 1971. The next year, the MTA generated plans to widen the turnpike from four to six lanes from Kittery to Scarborough. The construction was to take place over eight years and completed in 1980.

However, construction was barely underway when the Maine Supreme Court ordered construction to stop because of environmental concerns and that the Maine Legislature would have to grant approval for the construction project.

In addition, calls to turn the turnpike into a freeway began in the late 1970s. Some wanted the Maine Department of Transportation to take over responsibility to maintain the turnpike. The Maine Legislature passed a bill in 1982 that authorized the MTA to continue to be in charge of the turnpike. In addition, it mandated that tolls continue (although “regular commuters” would receive a 50% discount). 

By continuing the MTA management of the turnpike and its tolls, the legislature reasoned that limited state and federal transportation funding “could be used to maintain the rest of Maine’s roads, bridges and highways.” At that time, about 45% of toll revenue was generated from out-of-state vehicles. The MTA was also directed to allocate toll revenue to the State Highway Fund for roadway improvements to other state roads and bridges.

Toll plazas were a bit simpler in 1947. (Photo:
Toll plazas were a bit simpler in 1947. (Photo:

In addition, the legislature directed the MTA to study the need for new interchanges in the state’s urban regions to “promote economic development and increased commercial activity.” 

These directives generated in excess of $120 million of toll revenue that went to the state transportation fund from 1982 to 1997. Fund transfers were halted at that point, however; key turnpike infrastructure projects needed to be funded. 

Meanwhile, turnpike traffic counts continued to rise. In 1988, the process of obtaining necessary permits and legislative approval to widen the highway began. Legislative approval was granted. Then the process to obtain state and federal environmental regulatory agency construction permits began. Three years later, the MTA secured the necessary permits to begin widening the turnpike.

In 1950, vehicles could travel a "mile-a-minute" on the Maine Turnpike. (Photo:
In 1950, vehicles could travel a “mile-a-minute” on the Maine Turnpike. (Photo:

However, state environmental groups launched a petition drive, which led to a referendum on widening the turnpike. Maine voters stopped the project in 1991; the Sensible Transportation Policy Act was passed instead. It required 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.”

However, traffic continued to increase on the turnpike. The MTA requested that the legislature put the widening question to referendum. In 1997, Maine voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of widening the turnpike. More than 25 years after the widening process had begun, construction was going to begin. 

It was a complex construction project; 30 bridges needed to be rebuilt to accommodate a new third lane in both directions. Moreover, highway safety features had changed significantly over the years of delay. However, the construction was completed and the turnpike was widened from four to six lanes.

Cars and trucks approach a turnpike toll plaza. (Photo:
Cars and trucks approach a turnpike toll plaza. (Photo:

Interstate Highway System funding and construction

At about the same time that construction continued on second section of the Maine Turnpike, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in June 1956 and it was signed into law by President Eisenhower. The law authorized the construction of a 41,000-mile interstate highway system (IHS) to span the nation. The initial $26 billion was allocated for construction. Under the Act’s terms, the federal government would pay 90% of the cost of interstate highway construction. 

Therefore, passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act precluded the need for further extensions of the Maine Turnpike.

In August 1957, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (the predecessor of the Federal Highway Administration) incorporated two sections of the Maine Turnpike (Kittery to northwest of Portland, and Gardiner to Augusta, a total of 60 miles) into the interstate system. However, the Bureau opted for a more direct, toll-free connection between Portland and Gardiner. The two turnpike segments and the toll-free section became I-95.  

In August 1987, the Maine Turnpike between Portland and Gardiner was designated as I-495.  However, in October 2002, the numbering of the highways was revised. The I-95 designation was transferred to the former I-495; the former I-95 between Portland and Gardiner became I-295.

Give the dog the change. (Photo: MTA Facebook)
Signs show directions to I-95/Maine Turnpike. Give the dog the change. (Photo: MTA Facebook)

Author’s note: Thanks to the Maine Turnpike Authority for its comprehensive history of the turnpike and many vintage photos.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.