LEWISTON — A proposed turnpike toll hike is one more example of how economic development is made to suffer in Western Maine, according to Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte.
"The state funds and builds and maintains infrastructure very differently coming to Western Maine than other parts of the state," LaBonte said. "That inequity of public systems and how they are managed has a direct impact on economic growth and opportunity — and it has for decades."
LaBonte, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald and a handful of state and Twin Cities government and economic development officials were at Lewiston City Hall attempting to draw local residents' attention to the proposed toll hike and encourage them to attend Tuesday's plan review, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in Auburn Hall.
The Sun Journal will present a live webcast of the meeting on sunjournal.com, as well as a live blog.
The Turnpike Authority's current 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.
But local officials were most upset that the increase seems to fall most heavily on local residents or those trying to come here.
"We are looking at the difference between our way into Portland and everywhere else," LaBonte said. "It's fundamentally different, especially looking at Interstate 295. You have a four-lane free alternative from all directions but from Lewiston-Auburn."
It boosts costs for the area, which can hurt private investment.
"And I can guarantee you, that's cost us economic opportunity over the last generation," LaBonte said.
But Lewiston Mayor Macdonald said the proposal simply made him mad.
"Let's put a human face on this," Macdonald said. "I've talked with members of the immigrant community, and they want jobs. This creates one more barrier for them to get down to the south or the north where the jobs are. And people who already have jobs, you are taking money away from them. It's not just about business."
The increases, expected to bring in an estimated $26 million a year for the Maine 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.
Macdonald pointed out that people traveling to or from the Twin Cities pay a greater share. The 29-mile trip from Auburn to the Portland Jetport and back would cost about $6. The 29-mile trip between Lewiston and Augusta and back would cost about $4.
The 27-mile trip between Wells and Portland would cast about $2.50, under the proposal.
"How can anyone look us in the face and say, this is fair?" Macdonald said.
LaBonte said Twin Cities officials are calling on state legislators and Western Maine residents and town officials to fight the increase as well.
"Maine is a less partisan state than it is a geopolitical state," LaBonte said. "Regions of Maine are more dynamic than political parties. That's why we need our legislators in Androscoggin County to work more closely with Franklin and Oxford county to really see what we need to get investment here."
Lewiston-Auburn's legislative delegates began passing a petition Thursday to stop the proposed toll increase now and hope to put future discussions on the state Legislature's agenda in January.
They are also proposing a range of new legislation that would study the effect of tolls on Western Maine economic development, equalize maintenance costs between Interstate 95, the Maine Turnpike, and Interstate 295, the toll-free road through Portland and the Mid-Coast.
"We find these proposed tax hikes to be outrageous and unacceptable and unfair to local businesses and hard-working families," Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said.
In addition to the Auburn meeting, the authority is hosting meetings in Portland on June 20 and in Saco on June 21. All three meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m.