Viditorial: Excess revenue means turnpike tolls are too high

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Sponsor Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and calls his bill, LD 1538, the “turnpike authority restart bill,” according to the Portland Press Herald.

The authority has come under fire in recent months, following an audit by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Most notably, the OPEGA audit found the authority spent about $200,000 on gift cards for upscale resorts and hotels.

MTA Executive Director Paul Violette claimed he gave the cards as gifts to charities, but he was only able to account for about $15,000 of the spending. Under a cloud of suspicion, he resigned in March.

But the OPEGA audit also found that the Turnpike Authority operated in the gray zone between a public and private agency, which afforded less oversight than some legislators thought wise.

Cebra’s bill seeks to change that in several ways.

First, it would require Senate confirmation of MTA executive directors after they are selected by the authority’s board of directors.

It also would force the authority to file more detailed budgets with the Legislature.

It would require more competitive bidding for professional services such as engineering, and it would require the authority to adopt an internal auditing system.

All of which is well and good.

However, Cebra’s bill contains one very bad idea that we have warned against before — forcing turnpike toll-payers to fund highway improvements elsewhere in the state.

Cebra would skim 5 percent of turnpike revenue to pay for any project within 25 miles of existing turnpike exits.

That 25-mile threshold neatly includes coastal I-295, which already serves communities between Portland and Augusta with toll-free transportation.

The result, as we have pointed out before, is that commuters in places such as Falmouth and Yarmouth travel toll-free.

Meanwhile, commuters in places such as Lewiston-Auburn pay at least $3.50 in tolls to run back and forth to Portland, and $2.50 to travel to Augusta and back, if they pay in cash.

The disparity is stark — one side of the state gets free interstate, while the other side pays for every mile they travel.

Cebra’s bill promises to further punish turnpike travelers and the businesses that rely on the turnpike for commerce.

In fact, the 25-mile limit opens the door to turnpike revenue being used to help fund improvements or even the widening of I-295 to accommodate even more traffic.

In effect, Western Maine commuters would be helping to fund coastal growth and economic development.

Here’s a better idea, and it’s simple:

Turnpike revenue should be used ONLY to fund turnpike projects, such as repaving, bridge-building, exit improvements and park-and-ride lots.

If there is excess revenue, that only means one thing — tolls are too high. Reduce them.

Meanwhile, if I-295 needs improving, let users pay for it. A couple of strategically placed toll barriers should do the trick.

Whatever happens, turnpike users should not be forced to bankroll off-turnpike projects.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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