AUBURN — Increase Maine Turnpike tolls for out-of-staters only.

Bring equity to the toll system by charging a flat rate per mile.

Turn over turnpike operations to the Maine Department of Transportation and eliminate tolls.

Start collecting tolls on Interstate 295 instead.

Those were among the many suggestions offered to Maine Turnpike Authority officials Tuesday during the first of three public hearings scheduled this week on proposed toll increases.

Hearings are planned tonight at Portland City Hall and Thursday night at Saco City Hall.

Central and western Maine residents packed the Auburn City Council chambers for Tuesday’s hearing. Most were skeptical and some were outraged about the call for an increase, just three years after the last one.

State Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, said it’s simply not the time to increase costs for anything.

“The Legislature has spent the last two years trying to help struggling families get back on their feet. … I question the wisdom of the MTA raising tolls when people are having a difficult time filling their gas tanks,” she said.

Peter Mills, the authority’s executive director, discussed the many reasons behind the proposed toll increases.

He explained the debt payments that have built up over the years to widen the turnpike, the financial demands of the maintenance project schedule and the annual expenses to operate the highway from Kittery to Augusta.

He spoke of how once-reliable revenue projections have flattened out.

The audience followed along with number-filled handouts.

“We want to stimulate discussion,” Mills said. “No one in this economy takes any pleasure in raising tolls or taxes, and we’ve done a number of things to mitigate this toll increase.”

Under Mills’ watch in the last 15 months, the turnpike authority has cut its budget and refinanced some of its bonds to save money, but that hasn’t been enough.

The turnpike authority is considering a range of options to generate an additional $26 million a year. Under some scenarios, tolls would increase more in central Maine; under others, they would go up along the southernmost part of the turnpike.

Residents from the Lewiston-Auburn area who spoke Tuesday seemed most concerned about equity.

Auburn Mayor Jonathan Labonte said he would like to see Greater Portland residents pay a bigger share and he wants to see a deeper probe of the authority’s finances.

Mills replaced Executive Director Paul Violette, who resigned under pressure in March 2011 and was went to prison this year for stealing $150,000 to $230,000 from the turnpike authority in credit card purchases and gift cards for personal use from 2003 to 2010.

State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said during the hearing that they feel residents in their districts are being asked to bear a bigger burden.

Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said she plans to submit legislation to make any toll increase subject to legislative approval.

Craven and other lawmakers indicated that they plan to submit bills to bring equity to the toll system.

Some wondered aloud what would happen if the turnpike authority didn’t exist.

The authority technically could turn over the turnpike to the Maine Department of Transportation and the toll system could be eliminated, but the transportation department likely would have to raise the gas tax by 8 or 9 cents per gallon to maintain roads, Mills said, so every driver would pay, not just turnpike users. Right now, no tax money is used to operate the turnpike.

Others at the hearing wanted to add tolls on I-295, something Mills said couldn’t be done under current law. It’s a federally owned highway and cannot be folded into the turnpike authority.

Some expressed concerned about the impact on local roads if drivers decide they want to boycott the turnpike.

The meeting continued well into Tuesday evening as dozens waited their turn to speak.

Turnpike officials continued to take a proactive approach to getting the word out about their proposals. Mills gave his cellphone number to the audience and encouraged anyone to call him.

 

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: erussell@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell