GARDINER – Three days before the Maine Turnpike Authority makes its decision on toll increases, drivers who live at the northern end of the turnpike got their chance to weigh in Monday evening.

About 20 people attended a meeting at the Boys & Girls Club to ask that the authority not put an outsize burden on people who live and work in the Gardiner-Augusta area.

A proposal from the authority’s staff would increase the toll at the West Gardiner plaza from $1.25 to $2 as part of a plan to raise $26.5 million a year to balance the budget.

The increase at West Gardiner would be 60 percent, compared with 50 percent at the York plaza, 42 percent at New Gloucester and 50 percent for Wells northbound and Gray southbound.

“I understand you do need to increase your tolls, but I think it’s a burden on the people coming into Gardiner,” said Postmaster Audrey Murphy, who commutes from the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Murphy said she pays about $600 a year in tolls and would pay an additional $375 at the new rate. If that rate is approved, she might consider taking Route 126 to work — leaving 10 minutes earlier to deal with Lewiston traffic and saving almost $1,000 a year.

Peter Mills, the turnpike authority’s executive director, agreed that there are equity problems in the proposal and said the 60 percent increase at West Gardiner will be considered carefully when the board of directors meets Thursday. Any approved increases will take effect in November.

Some people in the audience expressed alarm at a suggestion by one board member to double the toll from $1 to $2 at the exit from Interstate 295 onto the turnpike in West Gardiner.

The board has not discussed that option, and Mills said the staff proposed raising only a couple of the $1 tolls because as recently as 2009 those tolls were only 60 cents.

Gardiner City Manager Scott Morelli said that doubling the I-295 toll would hurt the Libby Hill Business Park, which is on Route 201 a short distance from the highway exits.

Morelli also noted that people who drive from Gardiner to Augusta pay a toll that works out to 17 cents per mile, while people who travel the same distance or more on other sections of the turnpike can do so for free.

“By any name, I believe that’s an inequity,” Morelli said.

Nate Rudy, Gardiner’s economic development director, said the board should consider how central Maine’s population and economy differ from those of southern Maine.

“Our people probably drive further, earn less and spend more of their money on gas and vehicle maintenance,” Rudy said. “We don’t get the same level of tourism as southern counties.”

Gardiner City Councilor Patricia Hart said she fears that raising tolls would divert traffic onto Gardiner’s streets, especially large trucks, whose drivers don’t stop to spend money in town.

Hart noted that government officials expect the new MaineGeneral Medical Center campus to generate enough traffic to merit a new exit from I-95, and she expects many of those drivers would take surface streets to north Augusta to avoid a $2 toll.

Chuck Horstman suggested adding exit tollbooths at places such as the exit for the Portland International Jetport, but Mills said it costs at least $2 million to build tollbooths and more for ongoing personnel costs.

Mills said toll roads in other states are moving toward all-electronic systems, and eventually the Maine Turnpike will, too. He said that would restore the equity that was lost when Maine moved away from paper tickets and per-mile toll rates.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

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