AUBURN, Maine — For Lewiston’s April Girouard, a proposed toll hike doesn’t have anything to do with regional equity, transportation promises or economic development.
It means it’s going to cost more to get to her job in Scarborough.
“I’m just a Joe Blow. I’m not a senator or a lawyer; I’m just trying to survive,” Girouard said. “I understand the highway needs money, but I can’t do it.”
She was one of the 150-plus people who attended a packed-house hearing Tuesday night at Auburn Hall and one of 37 to get up and offer her opinion on the proposed toll hike.
Another 738 watched the meeting on a live video stream on sunjournal.com, and 355 participated in a live chat on the Sun Journal’s website.
Like Girouard, few supported the turnpike’s proposal.
“We don’t even have commuter options out of this area,” she said. “We don’t have the Zoom bus and the state is abandoning the Go Maine (carpooling) program.”
Western Maine residents find themselves priced out of using the turnpike.
“The alternative we have is to go on the side roads and stay off the turnpike,” said Alice Flanders of Lewiston. “They’re not as nice, not high-quality like the turnpike and I’d hate to see a tractor-trailer try to use it.”
Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, board Chairman Daniel Wathan and board member Robert Stone said they heard the comments.
“We set this meeting up to get suggestions on how to do things better,” Stone said. “I must have written down 25 to 30 suggestions, and we will look at them.”
The Turnpike Authority’s proposal calls for toll increases for the highway’s main barrier tolls and a restructuring of rates for E-ZPass holders and commuter discount programs.
The increases, expected to bring in an estimated $26 million a year for the turnpike, is needed to make debt payments due over the next five years. Cash tolls at West Gardiner and New Gloucester tollbooths would increase from $1.75 to $2.50, while the toll at the York booth would go from $2 to $3. Tolls for commercial trucks would increase, as well.
The authority is hosting meetings in Portland on June 20 and in Saco on June 21. Both meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m.
Local officials and residents argued that the increased tolls would be paid largely by residents of Androscoggin County and Western Maine.
“Right now, we pay more for traveling on the same road,” said Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston. “We don’t object to paying our fair share, but we do object to paying someone else’s.”
The 29-mile trip each way from Auburn to the Portland Jetport and back would cost about $6. The 29-mile trip each way between Lewiston and Augusta and back would cost about $4.
The 27-mile trip between Wells and Portland would cost about $2.50, under the proposal.
“The problem is that the proposal just adds an across-the-board increase onto an existing structure that’s unfair as it is,” said Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.
Suggestions ranged from adding an additional tollbooth south of Portland, creating a toll discount for Maine residents and charging a toll along Interstate 295.
Board member Stone said the problem would go away today if the state wanted to buy the Turnpike Authority and pay off its $475 million in debt. That includes borrowing for road-widening, bridge replacement projects and paving improvements.
“The only way out of this, other than the Legislature paying off the bonds and taking over the turnpike, is to have this toll increase,” Stone said. “If this is what they want to do, go to it.”
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