PORTLAND — A new Maine Turnpike toll-increase option presented Thursday would mean previously proposed toll hikes could be revised downward by as much as 50 cents at certain interchanges.
Under the new scenario, those paying cash tolls at the New Gloucester toll plaza would pay $2.25 and those passing through the West Gardiner toll plaza would pay $1.75.
The previous plan, which drew citizen fervor during an Auburn public meeting in June, would have bumped those tolls to $2.50 and $2, respectively. The tolls are currently $1.75 at New Gloucester and $1.25 at West Gardiner.
The new plan could also remove a proposed increase to the multiplier that commercial vehicles pay. That change would allow Maine's commercial trucking industry to avoid a more than $2 million annual increase in toll expenses.
After a round of raucous and often emotional public hearings, the Maine Turnpike Authority board of directors met Thursday to discuss its plans to increase toll revenue in an effort to maintain the highway's debt payments in future years. No vote was taken.
MTA staff presented the board — representatives from the counties through which the turnpike slices — with some new numbers, including a revision downward in the revenue it will need to make debt payments.
Treasurer Douglas Davidson said borrowing for several capital improvement projects that would not be ready for construction this year could be delayed to future budgets.
In all, about $84 million worth of projects could be pushed to future budgets, Davidson said.
The debt payments on those projects would save the authority about $5 million a year, meaning the additional amount the authority now needs to raise each year is $21 million, down from a previous figure of $26 million.
One of the projects that's delayed because of federal permitting and other issues is an interchange expansion and renovation for Exit 80 in Lewiston.
Regular and ongoing maintenance including annual bridge repair and paving projects were not subject to the change for capital improvements and would continue under the plan.
Another savings of about $2 million would be realized by delaying the replacement of turnpike guide signs that promote area attractions. Those signs are typically replaced every 20 years, but they were deemed adequate.
Delaying the debt would help the authority get past a bulge in debt-service payments coming due in the next two years, mostly for expansion and bridge-replacement projects that have been completed or are in the works.
Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills said the staff took a "microscopic" look at everything in the budget after the initial public meetings on the tolls. One unifying message directors and staff heard from those meetings was that the proposed hikes were too much for the current economic times and ought to be reduced, Mills said.
While the MTA has reduced its operating costs by more than 10 percent over the past two years, Mills said, the public often doesn't realize the authority's largest expense remains its debt payments on bonds for capital improvements.
Decreasing the borrowing would give the authority "more breathing space to pay down the debts, interest and principle that are coming due through the years 2014 to 2018," he said.
Androscoggin County's representative on the board, Robert Stone of Auburn, pitched an alternative plan to lessen the burden on New Gloucester but double from $1 to $2 the cash tolls drivers pay to exit onto Interstate 295.
Stone said his tolling scheme was designed to generate the revenue the turnpike needs, promote greater E-ZPass usage and extract more revenue from out-of-state travelers.
His plan also would equalize toll inequities facing Lewiston-Auburn travelers who have no alternate "free" route similar to I-295, Stone said.
He said out-of-state travelers get a real bargain when they divert off the turnpike and up I-295. He said tolls for 13 miles in New Hampshire are $2, or $4 for a round trip, while those shooting up I-295 are $2 for 53 miles.
Those diversions off the turnpike mean that those who do have to use the 'pike pay more for it.
"I really have a problem with that, because Maine motorists are really getting hosed," Stone said.
He also promoted the idea of not increasing the multiplier for commercial vehicles, saying their traffic was vital to commerce in Maine and to the economy in Lewiston-Auburn, in particular.
"I think it's very, very important that the authority does not become an impediment to economic growth in the state," Stone said.
Others on the panel said they understood his point of view but felt it was only fair that commercial truckers pay their share, especially given the impact they have on the roadway.
Turnpike staff also presented numbers showing the state's only toll road was ranked near the bottom in overall toll costs, both for passenger cars and commercial vehicles when compared to other toll roads in the country.
Even with the increases, Maine's toll roads would remain among the least expensive.
As for increasing the exit to I-295 tolls, Daniel Wathen, chairman of the MTA board, said that would be viewed as the authority extending its reach and it would be seen as a "de facto" toll on I-295, which was built with state and federal interstate highway funds and could not legally be tolled.
He said the $1 tolls now paid essentially cover the costs of those vehicles for the short portions of the turnpike they use.
"It's defensible only on the idea we are trying to equalize 295," Wathen said. "I understand your feeling completely, but it just doesn't seem to me that we can or we should equalize that because they knew it was going to have an impact on us and it was designed to have an impact on us."
Stone said after the meeting that he didn't expect his plan for I-295 tolls to be adopted, but he hoped the multiplier for commercial trucks would not be increased.
"We need to make sure we take care of that trucking industry," Stone said.
Getting more L-A travelers to use the E-ZPass system would save on round-trip costs south. Under the new proposal a round trip to Portland using the E-ZPass would cost $4.80 while the round-trip cost in cash would be $5.50.
The authority's board is expected to make a final decision on the toll increases at a 9 a.m. Aug. 2 meeting at its headquarters in Portland.