One way of telling that Lewiston-Auburn and Western Maine are again being shafted by a Maine Turnpike Authority rate increase is by looking closely at the three public hearings conducted thus far.
The first hearing, June 19 in Auburn, drew more than 150 angry people, 45 of whom spoke against the proposal in the course of a three-and-a-half-hour meeting.
Among those in attendance: mayors, council members and members of the local legislative delegation.
The theme? The Lewiston-Auburn area is consistently penalized by two turnpike toll barriers that hinder growth and development, particularly in comparison to the free access the Portland region enjoys to its wealthy bedroom communities to its north.
Furthermore, the rate increases favored by the Turnpike Authority staff heighten rather than reduce those disparities.
Even to the south, commuters can reach Portland by turnpike for 75 cents, while the Lewiston-Auburn area is saddled with a $1.75 cash toll to reach the state’s largest population center, Portland and Cumberland County.
That disparity will grow to $2.50 under the turnpike’s rate increase plan, while the toll to access Interstate 295 and Portland from the south will remain at 75 cents.
To be clear, that’s a 43 percent change increase for Lewiston-Auburn turnpike commuters and a zero percent change for most Portland commuters.
Only a simpleton would call that proportionate or fair or, perhaps, only the Portland region’s representative on the Turnpike Authority Board.
After three public hearings, board member Jim Cloutier of Portland told the Portland Press Herald: “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.’”
That’s just a wild and self-serving misreading of the public hearings so far.
Two nights after the marathon rate-increase meeting in Auburn, the Turnpike Authority conducted a similar hearing at Portland City Hall.
Instead of packing the place with 150 people, seven showed up and the meeting was over in less than an hour.
What’s more, the arguments were very different.
One man complained about all of the tolls between Portland and Boston. Another said the Turnpike Authority spends too much on salaries, while the mayor of Portland, Michael Brennan, came to say, basically, that the proposed increase is good by him and shouldn’t be changed.
Of course he likes the plan; it contains virtually no increase at all for Portland-area commuters. The local newspaper has even endorsed the suggested rate-increase plan.
The next night, the Turnpike Authority hearing moved to Saco, where about two dozen people turned out, at least 125 fewer than at the hearing in Auburn.
Again, the arguments were not about the relative fairness of the rate structure.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said Tuesday she would request an investigation by the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to determine whether Lewiston-Auburn pays a disproportionate share of the turnpike’s tolls.
That’s a good idea, but OPEGA does not have the expertise to answer two even larger questions:
First, which areas are advantaged and which are disadvantaged by our current transportation system, I-295 and the turnpike?
Second, how can we create a fairer system?
The Legislature should force the Turnpike Authority to pay for an independent, outside consulting firm with experience in transportation and economic development issues to find answers.
The firm should report directly to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.
That would be expensive, several hundred thousand dollars, but we are talking about tens of millions of dollars that are hindering growth and development in Western Maine.
Sun Journal, Lewiston (June 28)