MS: Turnpike toll hike brings big turnoutJun 26, 2012
MTA plan’s first public hearing draws a crowd in Auburn
AUBURN — Increase tolls on out-of-staters, but leave Maine residents alone. Bring equity to Maine’s toll system by charging a flat rate per mile traveled. Turn over turnpike operations to the Maine Department of Transportation and eliminate tolls entirely. Start collecting tolls on Interstate 295 instead.
Those were just some of the many suggestions offered to Maine Turnpike Authority officials on Tuesday during the first of three public hearings scheduled this week to discuss proposed toll increases.
Central and western Maine residents, many in the 50-years-or-older category, turned out in big numbers at Auburn City Hall. Most who packed the City Council chambers were skeptical and some were outraged about the need for an increase, even after MTA Director Peter Mills went through the many reasons behind the proposal.
Mills explained the debt service that has built up over the years to widen the turnpike, the financial demands of the turnpike’s maintenance project schedule and the annual operating expenses needed to run the turnpike. He talked about how once-reliable revenue projections have flattened out. 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, and 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, but it hasn’t been enough to stop a toll increase from coming just three years after the last increase.
No decision has been made, but the turnpike authority is considering a wide range of options that would result in generating an additional $26 million in annual revenue. In some cases, tolls would increase more in central Maine; in others, the rates would go up on the southernmost part of the turnpike. All options are on the table, Mills said.
People 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 also wants to see a deeper probe of the agency’s finances.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, both said they think residents in their districts are being asked to pay a bigger burden.
Some wondered aloud what would happen if the MTA didn’t exist.
The turnpike technically could be turned over to the Maine Department of Transportation, and the toll system could be eliminated. However, the DOT probably would need to raise the gas tax by 8 or 9 cents to maintain those roads, Mills said, except that every driver would pay that tax, not just turnpike users. Right now, no taxpayer funds are used to subsidize the turnpike.
Others wanted to add tolls on I-295, something Mills explained could not be done under current law. It’s a federally owned highway and cannot be folded into the turnpike.
Some were concerned about the effect on local roads if drivers decide they want to boycott the turnpike. The meeting continued well into the evening as dozens waited their turn to speak.
Even amid overwhelming opposition, the MTA continued to take a proactive approach to getting the word out about its toll increase proposals. Mills even rattled off his cell phone number to the audience on Tuesday and encouraged anyone to call him.
The decision on any increase ultimately rests with the MTA’s board of directors and could happen as early as this summer.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said she plans to submit legislation that would make any toll increase subject to lawmakers’ approval. Craven and other local lawmakers indicated they planned to submit bills that would bring equity to the toll system.
Two more public hearings are scheduled for this week — one Wednesday night at Portland City Hall and another on Thursday evening at Saco City Hall.