Maine Turnpike: 109 miles of highway robbery
When I woke up this morning I was in the midst of a recurring reverie in which I become a folk hero by leading a popular revolt against the Maine Turnpike Authority.
In my imagination, the MTA is a shadowy agency answerable to no one and run by a cabal of old pols and sand-and-gravel men who provide patronage to their in-laws and enjoy huge, undisclosed stipends and perks, not the least of which being a free pass on the Maine Turnpike.
I know, of course, why I was having that waking dream. Yesterday was the first day I had to pay $3 just to visit my parents in Westbrook. The 60-cent toll on the Falmouth Spur went up to $1 on Feb. 1 and, while the nefarious trolls of the MTA let you off the turnpike for free in Westbrook, they collect the toll at both ends on the return. Tolls for taking a 10-mile drive should be payable out of loose change found under the seat, not by emptying your wallet.
Over the years I have dreamed of visiting all kinds of mischief on the MTA. For a while, I actually managed to open my car door and pick up enough stray quarters that had missed the exact-change basket to pay my tolls. But then I started feeling guilty about this. Puritan guilt is the only thing keeping me from just cruising through the E-ZPass lane without paying at all. Now, of course, in their coercive campaign to get everyone to sign up for E-ZPass, the MTA has done away with exact-change lanes. That way they don't even have to collect the tolls; suckers pre-pay them.
One of my other revolutionary ideas was a honking campaign – "Honk if you think tolls are too high" – and a penny protest, paying tolls with fistfuls of pennies to annoy the MTA as much as it annoys me.
The daydream I was having this morning is the one in which I make up dollar bill-size coupons upon which are printed the words, "AS A MAINE CITIZEN, I NO LONGER RECOGNIZE THE AUTHORITY OF THE MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY TO COLLECT TOLLS ON THIS PUBLIC ROAD." As I pull up to the tollbooth, I simply hand one to the collector in the best spirit of non-violent civil disobedience and drive on.
This morning, as I fluttered in and out of consciousness, I was weighing the pros and cons of printing my name, address, and phone number on the reverse side of the coupon. If I took full responsibility for my actions, I was thinking, I might go to jail. I might then become a martyr. Others might take up the cause. And eventually, with the vast majority of Maine motorists refusing to pay tolls and the jails overflowing with scofflaws, the MTA might finally be abolished, as it was intended to be when first incorporated in 1941.
A decade ago, there was, in fact, a legislative effort to abolish the MTA and turn its 109 miles of highway robbery over to the Maine Department of Transportation. With its piles of moola however, the old boys of the authority managed to retain their license to extort. Then, just to make sure the state could never again threaten their racket, the MTA took on enough turnpike widening debt to choke a public takeover.
My dreams, however, of getting back at (and doing away with) the MTA are just that. Carolyn, being far more practical than I am, insists we're going to sign up for E-ZPass in order to save $2 every time we visit my folks. In the meantime, I guess I'll just stick to the back roads as much as possible and, when I do have to take the pike, mutter defiant oaths under my breath as I fork over my hard-earned money.
Two dollars to drive fives miles! Where do they think they are? New Hampshire?
The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem's weekly personal look at the world around him.