AUGUSTA — Amid the fallout from a watchdog group's study of the Maine Turnpike Authority, a bill is advancing in the Legislature that would create a commission to review potential changes to how the agency is controlled.
The bill, LD 208, is sponsored by Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Somerset, who said Tuesday that it was high time the Legislature explore alternatives to the MTA, a quasi-governmental agency that he described as a "good ol' boy" organization that has turned "100 miles of highway into an industry."
"They're (the MTA) comfortable," Thomas said. "Nobody's ever rocked their boat. It's time their boat was rocked."
The authority was recently the subject of an investigation by the Office of Program Evaluation and Program Accountability, which highlighted several issues with how the authority does business, including exorbitant travel expenses and donations to outside organizations.
The report follows ongoing complaints about how the MTA compensates its employees and what it charges for tolls.
Scott Tompkins, a spokesman for the MTA, said the report highlighted issues from "several years ago" that were no longer in practice. Tompkins defended the authority's donations to outside organizations, saying the MTA operated more like a business than a government agency and, like a business, he said it was important to create relationships with certain groups.
Tompkins said he hadn't seen the entire text of Thomas' bill. However, he noted several problems with some of the legislation's focus areas.
Thomas' bill has nine co-sponsors, including one Democrat, Sen. Dawn Hill, of York County. If enacted, the bill would create a nine-member commission to see if the turnpike could be leased to a private agency, if it should be taken over by the Maine Department of Transportation or if the MTA should be merged with DOT.
The commission would report its findings later this year.
Thomas said he wasn't wedded to a particular outcome, only that changes are made to a system that he said suffered from poor management and a turnpike that was increasingly costly to businesses that relied on it to move goods.
"I have hope that with the change in direction that Legislature is taking we might finally have the stomach to do some of the tough things that need to be done," he said.
Thomas said high tolls on the turnpike were diverting traffic to I-295, putting additional stress on that roadway.
"Now we're going to have to widen I-295, we're going to have to do noise abatement ... all because people won't use the turnpike because of the tolls," he said.
Tompkins said there were a lot of issues with leasing the turnpike to a private agency, including a lack of public oversight and even higher tolls.
He cited the 2004 privatization of the Chicago Skyway, which gave the state a one-time payment of $1.8 billion, but allowed a Spanish-Australian consortium to double the toll in the ensuing decade and additional increases after 2014.
As for MDOT taking over turnpike operations, Tompkins said the state's reliance on the gas tax for revenues wouldn't adequately fund upkeep for the 100-mile stretch of road.
"The turnpike is self-generating revenue, it's user-fee based," Tompkins said. "The DOT fuel tax is the dinosaur for funding mechanisms."
Thomas said he hoped his bill would gain traction with other lawmakers because of the media attention generated by the OPEGA report. However, he said the authority had influential allies and employed several lobbyists.
According to lobby data compiled by the state's Governmental Ethics & Election Practices department, the MTA spent just under $7,000 in lobbying efforts in 2010 and approximately $9,500 in 2009. Those efforts were divided between six lobbyists representing one firm, Preti Flaherty.
"I have not been happy with the management of the turnpike for a long, long time," Thomas said. "I think they waste a lot of our money."
Thomas said he wasn't surprised by some of the findings in the OPEGA report, but Tompkins said many of the study focus areas were problems several years ago, not now.
Asked about the MTA's donations to outside organizations, Tompkins said the MTA had to maintain relationships with a lot of groups and that such donations and sponsorships were sometimes necessary.
According to the watchdog report, the authority between 2005 and 2009 gave $10,000 to the Maine Center for Economic Policy and $3,255 to GrowSmart Maine. It donated to a host of other trade and business groups such as Maine Restaurant Association ($2,500) and the Maine Grocers Association ($10,000).
It also gave $103,295 to the Maine State Chamber of Commerce over that same five-year period.
Peter Gore, a lobbyist for the state chamber, said Tuesday that such donations were relatively routine. He could not specify how the MTA money was used.
Tompkins, who was hired in January, said he wasn't sure why the MTA donated to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, an organization that supports Democratic causes.
Kit St. John, the executive director for MCEP, could not be reached for comment.
The watchdog report highlighted several of those donations, but it did not include a recommendation to exclude them in the future. Instead, it recommended that the authority establish a formal policy to justify and document each donation and track solicitations from outside groups.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives referred Thomas' bill to the Transportation Committee. A public hearing has yet to be scheduled.