Interest wanes at Portland hearing on proposed Maine Turnpike toll hike

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PORTLAND — Opposition to a looming Maine Turnpike toll hike was not as prounounced in a public hearing Wednesday evening at City Hall as it had been a day earlier in Auburn.

Perhaps a dozen people who are not employees or board members of the Maine Turnpike Authority attended Wednesday’s meeting, and just seven of them had comments.

On Tuesday, June 19, more than 150 people packed Auburn City Council Chambers, and dozens of them spoke, mostly against the proposed toll increase.

The handful of speakers at Wednesday’s meeting, though, were no less displeased with the MTA’s plan to significantly raise tolls by November, just three years after the last hike. The proposed increase would boost MTA’s annual revenue by approximately $26.5 million.

Turnpike officials said the increased revenue is needed to continue the agency’s 30-year maintenance plans, including work on the roadway, bridges and interchanges.

“It’s just so frustrating that these tolls are so high,” Darrell Morrow, a Gorham resident, said. A round trip to Boston for him will soon cost $11, up from $9, he said, more than half the cost from toll booths in Maine – even though only about 40 miles of the drive is on the Maine Turnpike.

The toll hike would hurt industries that support the state’s economy, including tourism and shipping, Anthony Donovan of Portland, who is also an advocate of commuter rail service. The hike amounts to subtracting $26 million from the economy for a single road “at a time when the economy has no money,” Donovan said.

Alluding to the conviction of former MTA Executive Director Paul Violette, who pleaded guilty to stealing between $130,000 and $250,000 from the agency during the last seven years of his tenure, Donovan said turnpike officials have made poor decisions in the past, and the toll hike could be another one.

MTA Executive Director Peter Mills and other board members emphasized that the turnpike does not receive any state or federal funding throughout the meeting. And despite turnpike efforts to reduce costs by 11 percent over the next year – the board also announced Wednesday a plan to cut or consolidate 20 positions – officials said that not raising tolls to increase revenue would force the quasi-governmental body to default on its bonds.

“The fact of the toll increase is established,” MTA board Chairman Daniel Wathan, the former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said after the meeting.

With the hike a near-certainty, the concern for board members and many members of the public Wednesday was equity – “how you spread it over the turnpike fairly,” Wathan said.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan rejected the idea, lobbied by some at the meeting in Auburn, that the Portland area should bear a larger burden under the new tolls.

“People in Portland are always willing to pay our fair share. We don’t want to be singled out,” Brennan said.

Turnpike officials have charted projected benefits for 10 different toll hike models that place varying degrees of emphasis on the highway’s barrier tollbooths – those like York and New Gloucester, that are not attached to an exit or entrance – and side tolls.

The agency’s recommended plan would increase the tolls by $1, to $3, at York; by 75 cents in New Gloucester and West Gardiner, to $2.50 and $2, respectively, and by 50 cents to $1.50 at the Wells northbound and Gray southbound toll booths.

E-ZPass users would see a 20 percent increase, but Wathan said the turnpike plans to refine its commuter discount program so that travelers using the same route frequently would get an automatic discount of up to 50 percent.

The MTA board will discuss the toll hike in earnest for the first time at its July 19 meeting, Wathan said.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.