Maine Turnpike Authority staff and board members got plenty of feedback last week, nearly all of it negative, during a trio of public hearings on proposed toll increases.

No one, it seems, wants tolls to go up, but if it has to happen — and turnpike officials said it does — the changes should make the system more equitable.

“The comments were predictable but useful,” said Bob Stone of Lewiston, one of seven MTA board members who will be responsible for approving any changes.

“I think we can probably tweak one of our options and get us closer to equity, but there is a financial reality here, too. This road operates entirely with private money raised from users.”

Added Jim Cloutier of Portland, another board member: “My crack to the other members of the board was ‘Each of the three major counties served feels that they are being discriminated (against), so I guess we’re ready to move forward.’“

Ten toll increase options were presented to the public last week. They involve increasing tolls by varying amounts in varying locations in order to achieve an additional $26 million in annual revenue.

The option favored by turnpike authority staff would add $1 to the toll in York, 75 cents each at New Gloucester and West Gardiner and 50 cents each at the Wells northbound and Gray southbound tolls.

The MTA needs the extra revenue to pay off debt associated with the 30-mile widening project south of Portland, completed in 2005; to keep up regular maintenance on the 106-mile highway, and to cover operating expenses.

Many years ago, turnpike tolls were equitable because they were based on miles traveled. Drivers were handed a ticket when they got on. When they got off at an exit, they looked at the ticket to see how far they traveled and paid accordingly.

That system was abandoned in 1997, when the turnpike moved toward automation.

“The paper ticket was the most equitable, no question, but it was expensive to operate,” Stone said.

Now, tolls appear to have no rhyme or reason.

The most expensive toll is $2 at the York toll exchange, where most tourists come through Maine. But the toll is the same whether a vehicle travels one exit north to Sanford or continues all the way to Portland.

Another head-scratcher is this example: Drivers can go from Exit 75 in Auburn to Exit 80 in Lewiston and then on to Exit 86 in Sabattus without paying a toll. However, a vehicle that gets on the turnpike at Exit 48 in Westbrook must pay $1 immediately and then another $1 to get off on Interstate 295 in Falmouth, just four miles away.

Turnpike Director Peter Mills conceded that when the switch was made from a ticket system to the existing “barrier toll” system, it created inequities.

“If I knew how to fix it, I would,” he said during Thursday’s meeting in Saco.

The best way to settle the equity question, Mills said, is to keep encouraging drivers to purchase an E-ZPass. Like the ticket system of old, the E-ZPass is based on miles traveled.

But, as some pointed out last week, E-ZPass users would not necessarily be spared from an increase. The option supported by MTA staff would increase the per-mile rate 20 percent from 6.7 cents to 8 cents, in addition to other toll increases.

Even with that increase, though, E-ZPass users will save. Consider a trip south from New Gloucester to Portland. That would cost $1.75 in cash currently and $2.50 under the favored option. For E-ZPass users, it would cost about $1.60 now or about $2 if the per-mile rate increased by 20 percent.

There are now 140,000 E-ZPass customers in Maine, who account for about 40 percent of turnpike revenue.

Mills said he thinks that any toll increases create an additional incentive for drivers to purchase an E-ZPass, and he hopes more Mainers consider it. An internal windshield tag costs $10, while an external tag is $17.

Turnpike officials have heard plenty of opinions so far, but they want to hear more. Two additional meetings have been scheduled in York County: the first on July 9 at the York American Legion Hall, and the second on July 11 at Wells High School. Both meetings are scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m.

“Even though the comments have been predictable, I’m trying to not have a lot of preconceived ideas,” Cloutier said. “I want to hear what others have to say and try to do what’s fair.”

The turnpike’s board of directors meets July 19 and could make its decision then. The changes are expected to go into effect by November.

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

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell