GARDINER — Just before the Maine Turnpike Authority makes a decision on toll increases, drivers from this end of the turnpike had their chance to weigh in on Monday evening.

About 20 people attended a meeting at the Boys & Girls Club to ask that the authority not place an outsize burden on people who live and work in the Gardiner and Augusta area.

A proposal from the authority’s staff would increase the toll at the West Gardiner plaza from $1.25 to $2 as part of a plan to raise $26.5 million to close a budget gap.

The increase at West Gardiner would be the largest on a percentage basis: 60 percent, compared to 50 percent at the York plaza, 42 percent at New Gloucester and 50 percent for Wells northbound and Gray southbound.

“I understand you do need to increase your tolls, but I think it’s a burden on the people coming into Gardiner,” said postmaster Audrey Murphy, who commutes from the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Murphy said she pays about $600 a year in tolls now and would have to pay an additional $375 at the new rate. If it’s approved, she might consider taking Route 126 to work — leaving 10 minutes earlier to deal with Lewiston traffic would save her almost $1,000 per year.

Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills agreed that there are equity problems and said the 60 percent increase at West Gardiner will be carefully considered at the board’s meeting on Thursday.

Some people in the audience expressed alarm at a suggestion by one authority board member to double the toll from $1 to $2 at the exit from Interstate 295 onto the turnpike in West Gardiner.

The board has not discussed that option, and Mills said the staff proposed raising only a couple of the $1 tolls because as recently as 2009 they were only 60 cents.

Gardiner City Manager Scott Morelli said that doubling the I-295 toll would hurt the Libby Hill Business Park, which is on U.S. Route 201 a short distance from the highway exits.

Morelli also noted that people traveling from Gardiner to Augusta pay a toll that works out to 17 cents per mile, while people who travel the same distance or farther on other sections of the turnpike can do so for free.

“By any name, I believe that’s an inequity,” Morelli said.

Nate Rudy, Gardiner’s economic development director, said the board should consider how central Maine’s population and economy differ from southern Maine’s.

“Our people probably drive further, earn less and spend more of their money on gas and vehicle maintenance,” Rudy said. “We don’t get the same level of tourism as southern counties.”

Gardiner City Councilor Patricia Hart said she worries that raising tolls will divert traffic onto Gardiner streets, especially large trucks that don’t stop to spend money in town. Both of the I-295 exits in Gardiner are for small highways on which there are schools.

Hart also noted that government officials expect the new MaineGeneral Medical Center campus to generate enough traffic to merit a new exit from I-95, and she expects many of those drivers to take surface streets to north Augusta to avoid a $2 toll.

Chuck Horstman suggested adding exit toll booths at places such as the exit for the Portland International Jetport, but Mills said it costs at least $2 million for construction and more for ongoing personnel costs.

Mills said that toll roads in other states are moving toward an all-electronic system, and eventually the Maine Turnpike will, too. He said that would restore the equity that was lost when Maine moved away from paper tickets and per-mile toll rates.


Susan McMillan — [email protected]

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