PORTLAND — The Maine Turnpike Authority is poised to scale back its proposed toll increase of about 17 percent by delaying some of its long-term projects, but members have yet to settle on who should pay the $21.5 million that still must be raised annually to cover long-term debt.

Members spent several hours Thursday discussing ways to make the toll increase as fair as possible, but fairness is in the eye of the beholder.

Some members want to minimize the toll increase on trucks, while others say the savings should help people who use the turnpike for short trips or rely on E-ZPass to pay their tolls.

“We learned where the board has consensus and where the board has differences,” said the authority’s executive director, Peter Mills, after the meeting. Those differences may be settled at its next meeting, on Aug. 2.

The meeting was the first opportunity for board members to discuss with each other the different toll increase proposals, Chairman Daniel Wathen said. Choosing will be difficult.

“There will be a lot of criticism no matter what we do,” he said just before ending the meeting after five hours.

The authority started the day with some good news. It won’t necessarily need to raise as much money as had been thought.

Dropping the toll increase from $26 million to $21.5 million is possible because some projects won’t be done as quickly as originally planned. Some, such as a Lewiston interchange project, already have been delayed because of permitting and land acquisition. Others, such as replacing green exit signs, can be put off without consequence.

All that work still would get done, but delaying the borrowing to pay for it means reducing the bond payments needed between 2014 and 2018 when the authority is facing a payment “plateau.” Debt payments in those years are highest in part because of new capital projects and also because when the authority borrowed to widen the turnpike in 2000, it delayed starting to pay down the principal until 2008.

The strategy made sense when turnpike traffic, and as a result toll revenue, was increasing 2.5 percent every year; but the recession hit hard in 2008 and traffic dropped way off, the first time it declined in 61 years, and especially truck traffic. Current traffic on the turnpike is only at 2003 levels.

The proposed toll increase is designed to make up that shortfall. Because the authority would be raising less money, it ideally would implement the tolls by November, the staff told the authority members.

Even with the increase, the Maine Turnpike is one of the cheapest toll roads in the country, ranking among the 18 lowest now and still in the bottom 20 percent after the toll increase takes affect, said Paul Godfrey, a consultant for the authority.

The authority staff has floated 10 different toll-increase scenarios, and there can be mixing and matching within each. The authority has held six public hearings to gather input from customers. A summary of those comments can be found on the turnpike authority website at www.maineturnpike.com/Toll-Adjustments-Info.aspx.

The most heavily attended sessions were in the Lewiston-Auburn area, which is heavily dependent on the turnpike, especially for trucking-related businesses.

Authority member Robert Stone, who represents Androscoggin County, including the Lewiston-Auburn area, opposes an increase in the surcharge added on trucks. Trucks already will see their tolls go up, since their rate — generally four times the amount charged for a car — would increase as the base toll for cars increases. However, one proposal would increase the rate for trucks to 4.25 times the car rate, which he said is too much.

Stone said the increase is hitting the trucking industry — and industries that depend on trucking — hard at a time when they are already reeling from the recession.

Residents in that area also object to increases at the New Gloucester toll plaza, the primary route to Portland and all points south. Mills said reducing the money needed from tolls should lower the rate at that toll booth.

Stone also suggested the authority could raise more money and address an important fairness issue if it charged more for motorists to get off the turnpike onto Interstate 295 in South Portland or Falmouth and used exit tolls to eliminate local routes people use to skip those toll plazas. However, the idea seemed to gain little traction with other members.

James Cloutier, a Cumberland County representative, said including the increased truck rates could be used to offset higher prices at the West Gardiner toll, an increase of 25 cents instead of 50 cents; soften the increase to those paying with E-ZPass so they paid 7 cents a mile instead of 8 cents; and keeping to 50 cents the minimum toll charged on short trips around town, which had been scheduled to increase 10 cents.

One of the proposals under consideration, which seems to have strong backing, would give bulk discounts to E-ZPass users. Users who make 20 to 30 trips per month would see a 10 percent discount. Those who make 50 to 60 trips would see a 40 percent discount.

That’s a discount off a per-mile price, which is always lower than the cash price paid at the toll for a given stretch of highway.

The discounts would be good for commuters and pushes people to use E-ZPass, which saves the turnpike money, Mills said.

Authority members agreed that converting as many people as possible to E-ZPass improves fairness — a major theme in the public hearings — because people pay only for the miles driven.

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