Maine Turnpike Authority reform closer to reality

| 5/26/2011

In the wake of a report that questioned spending at the Maine Turnpike Authority, a bill to overhaul the agency is on the move. Among the benefits for truckers and other drivers is a requirement that more toll revenue be routed to state highway projects.

The turnpike authority has been under fire since a January investigation and subsequent report by the Legislature’s accountability office revealed lavish spending and about $160,000 in gift cards that could not be accounted for. About two months later, the authority’s director, Paul Violette, resigned.

The 88-page report recommended more oversight of the agency, which oversees the 109-mile toll highway that stretches from Kittery to Augusta.

The Legislature’s Transportation Committee voted 12-0 to endorse a bill that would require a restructuring of the turnpike authority. The legislation pursues a number of changes, including a requirement for Senate confirmation of the authority’s director. Currently, the board of directors has sole authority to select the director.

“The MTA abuses over recent years are now widely known,” Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, said in a statement. “Financial management was extremely lax, leading to stays in expensive hotels, meals costing thousands of dollars, and of course the now-infamous gift cards.”

Cebra said the bill sets a framework for greater cooperation and more efficient use of resources. He pointed out that costly equipment was sitting idle while the Department of Transportation was spending money that could be used for roads to lease the same kind of equipment.

The bill – LD1538 – awaits further consideration before the full House and Senate.

Additional requirements call for the agency to submit spending budgets and transfer 5 percent of its annual operating revenue to the state Department of Transportation. About $5.7 million in revenue each year would be applied to projects within 25 miles of turnpike interchanges.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said the changes sought in the bill would hold the agency accountable for poor decisions made by top managers and unwillingness to address public concerns. She highlighted the authority’s treatment of York County residents who questioned the building of a new toll plaza, which started the inquiry into their activities.

“The turnpike’s leaders were nonresponsive and acted as if they were above answering legitimate questions,” Hill stated. “Now those chickens have come home to roost.”

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