PORTLAND, Maine — Maine Turnpike Authority officials on Thursday said they may be able to shrink a slate of proposed toll increases by deferring a number of highway maintenance and repair projects deeper into the future.

Authority leaders are also now considering dropping a proposal to raise the multiplier price levied on five-axle commercial trucks from 4 times the passenger car rate to 4.25 times the rate.

Daniel Wathen, chairman of the authority board, said that during a series of public input forums held on the proposed toll increases people told turnpike officials they couldn’t afford the hikes during the still struggling economy.

“People said, ‘For God’s sake, is there anything you can do to make this any less?’” Daniel Wathen said during Thursday morning board meeting at the authority’s Portland headquarters.

The authority board made no concrete decisions at its Thursday meeting, which lasted five hours, but plans to take action on a toll increase proposal at its Aug. 2 meeting.

The authority has been proposing to raise tolls in order to generate $26 million in additional annual revenue, which officials say is necessary to keep up with the agency’s highway maintenance responsibilities and debt payments adding up to $192 million between 2013 and 2017.

By pushing approximately $84 million in scheduled bridge and highway projects further into the future, authority leaders now believe they could reduce the amount they need in additional annual revenue down to between $21 million and $22 million.

The toll increases, if they are approved, could be implemented as early as November.

Authority Executive Director Peter Mills said the hikes are necessary even though turnpike officials have cut their 2013 budget by more than 10 percent and their proposed 2014 budget by an additional 4 percent. The authority has planned for $113 million in bridge repairs and rehabilitation work over the next five years, as well as $82 million in paving and interchange improvements over that same time period.

“The largest component of the turnpike budget is the capital budget, to build and rebuild bridges, to do paving,” Mills told authority board members Thursday. “The kinds of things we have planned over the next four or five years, we’ve taken a microscopic look at it to see if there are projects — major and otherwise — if there’s anything we can defer in order to give us more breathing room.”

Douglas Davidson, authority treasurer, said about $84 million in project work can be pushed into future years as part of that evaluation. Among the projects moved ahead in the authority’s construction schedule are a full replacement of green guide signs, from 2015 to 2018, as well as work on the York and Gardiner toll areas from 2014 until 2017, authority Chief Operations Officer Peter Merfeld told the board.

Davidson said the authority can reduce the additional amount it needs to raise annually from about $26 million to between $21 million and $22 million by deferring the aforementioned slate of projects, but the toll increase would need to be implemented no later than Nov. 1 in order to avoid losing any ground.

The previous proposal favored by turnpike authority staff — one of 10 options the authority considered — would have hiked tolls by $1 at the toll plaza in York, 75 cents at toll plazas in New Gloucester and West Gardiner, and 50 cents at Wells and Gray. The proposal also would raise the per-mile rate for users of the E-ZPass toll transponder to 8 cents from the current 6.7 cents.

An alternative proposal brought forward by Mills on Thursday reduced increases in New Gloucester and West Gardiner by 25 cents each and kept the commercial multiplier applied to 5-axle trucks at 4 times.

The latest proposal, which would raise just more than $23 million, would fix toll prices at $3 in York, $2.25 in New Gloucester, $1.75 in West Gardiner and $1 in Gardiner and on side tolls.

Authority staff members will now re-evaluate how much the toll increases will have to be assuming the need to raise less than $22 million, a change that presumably would drive those tolls down further.

Authority officials have said the Maine turnpike is the 12th lowest price toll highway for passenger cars out of 104 in the country, and even with the increases, would remain “among the lowest” in the group.

The proposal to increase tolls has come under fire by groups in many regions as being unfair. During a packed public input session in Auburn last month, residents told authority officials in that area they pay a disproportionate amount in tolls compared to areas south and east.

The Lewiston Sun Journal reported that the 29-mile trip each way between Auburn and the Portland Jetport and back would cost about $6 under the previous toll increase proposal. The 29-mile trip each way between Lewiston and Augusta and back would cost about $4, while the 27-mile trip between Wells and Portland would cost about $2.50 under the proposal.

Because of an increase in the multiplier on commercial trucks also included in the previous proposal — from 4 times the amount charged to passenger cars to 4.25 times the rate — the impact on truckers traveling the length of the highway would jump from $20 to about $32 under the previous plan. Truckers using Maine E-ZPass transponders would pay $28.70 across the stretch.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has also urged the authority to be wary of the impact the toll hikes would have on travelers through his city, which he argued generates more turnpike traffic than other places along the 109-mile highway. In a statement issued last month, he noted that 250,000 people drive into and out of greater Portland every day for work.

“The people in York say, ‘You can’t get onto the turnpike without paying a king’s ransom,’ and the people in Lewiston say, ‘You can’t get here without dropping off your entire net worth in New Gloucester,’” said board member James Cloutier of Portland.

Wathen said the best way to make the turnpike tolls more equitable would be the expansion of the electronic E-ZPass program.

“We’re limited in what we can do to make the cash prices equitable,” he said. “The E-ZPass is the answer to the inequity. What we really need to do is get E-ZPass into as many hands as we can, and then you get charged for however many miles you use.”

During Thursday’s meeting, Stone proposed an alternative slate of toll increases aimed at increasing E-ZPass usage and reducing diversion of toll payers from the turnpike onto Interstate 295, which is free and stretches between Scarborough and Gardiner.

Stone’s plan involves greater toll increases at the places where drivers get off the turnpike and get onto the free highway 295, including jumps from $1 to $2 at the side tolls in northern York and Cumberland counties.

“The diversion to I-295 has cost and will continue to cost turnpike patrons higher tolls.” Stone said, adding that shifting the increases onto gateway points to Interstate 295 would move a greater portion of the financial burden to out-of-state drivers. He said a Maine traveler driving through New Hampshire will pay $3 to go 13 miles over the neighboring state’s highways, while a New Hampshire driver can cross more than 100 miles of Maine highways for just $5 by avoiding the turnpike on I-295.

But Wathen said the hike in tolls at the I-295 gateways would be “de facto” tolls on the 295 highway, which cannot legally be a toll highway because its maintenance is funded by the state and federal governments, unlike the country’s toll highways.

“The [turnpike] revenue loss was one that responsible people at the state recognized [when they built 295], and I’m not sure how far we can go in backdooring that,” Wathen said.

While Stone’s proposal did not generate widespread conversational support among his fellow board members, no vote was taken on the toll increases Thursday. It, like the latest proposal brought forth by Mills Thursday, remain officially on the table leading into the board’s Aug. 2 meeting.

The authority held six public input sessions on the proposed increases in Portland, Saco, Wells, York, Gardiner and Auburn.

The turnpike authority currently takes in about $103 million each year from tolls and another $3 million each year from operating its service plazas.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.