The Universal Notebook: Highway robbery on the Maine Turnpike

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So far the one good thing about the Republican conquest of Augusta has been that Maine Turnpike Authority Director Paul Violette has been chased from office after 23 years for failure to adequately explain what he did with $157,000 worth of slush fund gift certificates he purchased in 2005 and 2006.

I’ve never really thought of the Maine Turnpike Authority as a partisan political entity, just a bloated, unnecessary semi-governmental bureaucracy. But since its members are appointed by the governor, I guess it has been a Democratic redoubt for decades. Both Violette and MTA Chairman Gerard Conley are former Democratic state senators. Now that the GOP is in charge, they’re trying to chase the Demo-rats out of the MTA woodwork. Probably just to replace them with Rat-publicans.

The Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability (OPEGA) report that triggered all the current finger-pointing and hand-wringing about the turnpike actually concluded that the MTA was a pretty well-run agency. Still, if we’re lucky, the Republican wrecking crew will dismantle the MTA before anyone actually reads the report.

Even with the rare reasonable Republican, Peter Mills, as the interim director, I’d still prefer to see the MTA disbanded, the tollbooths torn down, and control of the 109-mile highway turned over to the Maine DOT. Here are some of the many reasons why:

• The MTA should have been disbanded, as intended, back in 1981 when the original turnpike bond was paid off. By then, however, no one dared to kill the cash cow that today generates about $1 million a mile in revenues. So the MTA was allowed to keep soaking us ad infinitum.

• The Maine Turnpike discriminates against residents of southern Maine. We have to pay tolls to use the primary highway in our region. Folks who live in Augusta and north have toll-free use of I-95 in their region.

• The argument that toll roads make the people who use the road pay for it is completely bogus. Everyone in Maine benefits from the Maine Turnpike. Everyone should help pay for its upkeep.

• Turnpikes, in general, are so 19th century. All toll roads everywhere should be liberated. I mean how can you not think less of New Hampshire for having the unmitigated gall to charge $2 to use its piddling little pike?

• The Maine Turnpike is supposed to turn its operating surplus over to the Maine DOT each year. But despite talking in $100 million a year, the MTA hasn’t had an operating surplus to turn over since 1997. No wonder the MTA invested in a new $11 million headquarters. If it hadn’t spent the money on itself, it would have had to give it away.

• And why the heck does gasoline cost 20 cents more per gallon ($3.73 versus $3.53 last week) on the turnpike? I assumed the answer was that the turnpike is a controlled-access highway, so it can charge its captive audience whatever it wants. I was told, however, that the 20-cent premium helps to pay for patrols on the highway during inclement weather to look for motorists in trouble. Thanks, but I’d prefer to pay $3.53 and just call AAA.

• A semi-governmental “authority” is just rife for fat-cat and sweetheart deals. There’s that $157,000 in toll money Violette gave away. There’s $454,000 in other donations and sponsorships over a recent five-year period. There’s that $1.1 million in food and lodging travel expenses between 2005 and 2009. And there’s the fact that the MTA has had a no-bid consulting engineer contract with Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendorf since the 1940s. HNTB is a mammoth national engineering and architectural form based in Kansas City. Doesn’t anybody in Maine know how to pave a road or build a bridge?

Frankly, I have always assumed that MTA members pull in fat compensation packages for sitting on their duffs once a month to decide how much to hike tolls, but I am assured that Gerry Conley & Crew only get $55 a meeting plus mileage – and, oh yes, free use of the turnpike.

And when you come right down to it, that’s all I want – and what everyone should want – out of this current tempest-in-a-tollbooth: free use of the Maine Turnpike.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.