YORK – Maine Turnpike users living in the York area, who already pay the highway’s highest tolls if they get on and off at the York toll plaza, said Monday night that it would be unfair to ask them to pay even more.

But motorists who drive through the York toll plaza would pay $3 instead of the current $2 under under the Maine Turnpike Authority’s preferred toll increase plan, one of several aired at a series of public hearings hosted by the authority over the past several weeks.

Even turnpike director Peter Mills agreed that the proposed York toll increase is steep, but more tourists come through the York toll plaza than through any other on the 106-mile turnpike, he said. Visitors should be targeted instead of Mainers, he said.

Local residents, however, fear they will suffer.

“I know there is a lot of money that comes through here and a lot is from away, but we do have people from York and Wells who have to use that turnpike,” said Mary Andrews, a York selectwoman. “It’s grossly unfair to charge us $3 to go six or seven miles.”

Andrews was among more than 75 people who turned out Monday night for the latest public hearing at the York American Legion Hall.

Turnpike officials say the toll increases are needed to close an annual revenue gap of about $26 million, to help pay off old debt associated with the 30-mile widening project south of Portland that was completed in 2005, and for maintenance and operating expenses.

Turnpike officials already heard plenty of criticism during meetings last month in Auburn, Portland and Saco, and the sentiment was the same in York. One final meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Wells High School.

So far, the biggest criticism has been equity. No matter where residents live, they all are concerned that they will be forced to pay an unfair share.

York County residents pointed out that they have to pay both getting on and getting off the turnpike in York. At $2, it’s already the highest of the six “barrier” tolls and accounts for 38 percent of all turnpike revenue.

“You’ll never hear me say it’s fair,” Mills said.

State Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, said she just wants to know how the turnpike arrived at current fares. No one seems to know, she said.

Dave Emery agreed and rattled off some of the current tolls for certain stretches.

“There is just no logic to it,” he said.

The turnpike authority has at least 10 toll increase options on the table. The turnpike authority board could make a decision as soon as its July 19 meeting.

The option preferred by turnpike authority officials would raise the toll from $2 to $3 at York, from $1.75 to $2.50 at New Gloucester, from $1.25 to $2 at West Gardiner, and from $1 to $1.50 at the Wells northbound and Gray southbound tollbooths.

For E-ZPass users, the rate would increase by an average of 1.3 cents per mile, from 6.7 to 8 cents. Mills has said the E-ZPass is the best way to ensure equity because users are charged for distance traveled instead of set amounts at exit tolls. But not everyone wants to join.

Since he’s taken over the authority, Mills has cut its budget by about 10 percent and refinanced bonds to save money in the future. Last month, he also announced the elimination of about two dozen positions.

“Increasing tolls is probably the meanest thing we can do … but we’ve done everything we can to mitigate this,” Mills said

Bob Stone, a turnpike authority board member from Auburn, told the Lewiston Sun Journal recently that he’s been working on an alternative option. He wants to increase tolls at West Gardiner and Falmouth to $2 and also set the toll in South Portland near the Maine Mall at $2.

It’s not clear if that option has support from any other board members.

 

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell