AUBURN — Increase tolls on out-of-staters, but leave Maine residents alone. Bring equity into Maine’s toll system. Turn over turnpike operations to the Maine Department of Transportation. Start collecting tolls on Interstate 295 instead.

Those were just some of the ideas thrown at Maine Turnpike Authority officials on Tuesday during the first of three scheduled public hearings this week to discuss proposed toll increases.

Central Maine residents, many in the 50-years-or-older category, turned out in big numbers, and most who packed Auburn City Hall were skeptical about the need for an increase, even after MTA Director Peter Mills went through the many reasons behind the proposal.

Mills talked about the debt service that has built up over the years, the maintenance project schedule and the annual operating expenses needed to run the turnpike. Attendees followed along with number-filled handouts offered to anyone who came through the door.

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

Under Mills’ watch, the MTA has cut its budget and refinanced some of its bonds to help save money, but it hasn’t been enough to stop a toll increase from coming.

No decision has been made, but the turnpike is considering a wide range of options that would result in generating an additional $26 million in revenue. In some cases, tolls would increase more in central Maine, in others, the rates would go up in the southernmost part of the turnpike.

Folks in Lewiston-Auburn seemed most concern about equity. Auburn Mayor Jonathan Labonte said he would like to see Greater Portland residents pay a bigger share and he also wants to see a better probe of the agency’s finances.

Some wondered what would happen if the MTA didn’t exist.

If the MTA turned over the turnpike to the Maine Department of Transportation and the toll system was eliminated, the DOT likely would need to raise the gas tax by 8 or 9 cents to keep up those roads, Mills said. But every driver would pay that tax, not just turnpike users.

The MTA has taken a proactive approach to getting the word out about the toll increase proposals. Mills even rattled off his cell phone number to the audience and encouraged anyone to call him.

The decision on any increase ultimately rests with the MTA’s board of directors.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said she plans to submit legislation that would require lawmakers to approve any toll increase. Other lawmakers indicated they planned to submit bills that would bring equity to the toll system.

Two more public hearings are scheduled this week – Wednesday night at Portland City Hall and Thursday evening at Saco City Hall.