Last summer, it was a $1,342 dinner tab that had motorists fuming.

This year, it’s a $25,684 excursion to Vienna, a trip made too late for Oktoberfest but just in time for the Austrian formal ball season.

The Maine Turnpike Authority’s 2006 feast of excess now seems to pale in comparison to the autumn globe-trot to Austria.

MTA Executive Director Paul Violette and the agency’s chief financial officer, Neil Libby, left for the Oct. 7-11 International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association conference on Sept. 27, flying to Europe early to enjoy a pre-conference vacation. The MTA picked up the tab for their flights, but the men are paying their own expenses – and the expenses of their wives – while on vacation. The MTA travel policy specifically allows employees to travel early and take advantage of MTA-paid flights to vacation.

MTA Board Chairman Gerard Conley, Vice Chairman Lucien Gosselin and senior member Earl Adams left for Europe on Friday, with Mrs. Gosselin and Mrs. Adams traveling along.

The cost of flights for the MTA officials ranges from $1,506 to $1,877 for coach fares all around, with lodging estimated to range between $1,739 to $1,924 per person for the five-day conference, or $18,085, an estimated $3,617 per person to travel and lodge at the five-star Hilton Vienna. We found a direct flight from Boston to Vienna, paired with lodging at a comfortable two-star hotel near the conference site, for $1,436 on Travelocity, more than $2,000 less per person than the MTA booking.

In addition to the agency’s $18,085 cost for travel and hotel, there are meals, $3,720 in conference fees and ground transportation expenses, which brings the MTA bill to $25,684.

But then, MTA officials will get a lot.

The first day of the conference includes an afternoon sightseeing walking tour of Vienna, which includes a visit to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and attendance at an evening art opening at the Austrian Museum for Applied Arts and Contemporary Art. No highways there.

On the second day, after a morning of conference sessions, there’s an awards luncheon and an afternoon sightseeing tour, which includes a visit to Schonbrunn Palace.

On Day Three, there are numerous conference sessions, or an optional sightseeing tour of the Vienna Woods that runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The morning of Day Four is packed with sessions to learn strategies for fighting traffic congestion and a peek at Beijing’s Olympic transportation strategies, with the conference formally adjourning at 11:30 a.m. Day Five of the conference has no sessions, but does offer post-meeting tours of Budapest and Prague.

There is certainly some good information to be gleaned from this conference, such as highway safety and emerging toll-collection technologies, but the five-day agenda is heavy on lunch and sightseeing, with Days 1 and 5 designed to highlight the city and its amenities, not highways and bridges.

According to Violette, this annual conference “provides one of the few opportunities to meet with the real innovators and leaders in our industry.” And, this year, “We’ll be gathering information about developments in free-flow tolling technology which allows tolls to be collected electronically while vehicles pass by at normal highway speed.”

For folks who travel Maine’s turnpike, that would be a welcome change to the slow-down required for EZPass, but does it take five men to travel to Europe at a cost of nearly $26,000 to get access to that information?

Absolutely not.

If the conference is that vital to Maine’s highway future, wouldn’t Maine’s Department of Transportation send representatives to learn about road safety and congestion? Nope. MDOT didn’t even consider it.

The governor is just one Mainer who has questioned the cost of this trip. And, while the MTA is funded through tolls and not tax dollars, it’s also dependent on state- and federally funded bonds – better known as public money – and has an obligation to be responsible to taxpayers.

A $25,684 European excursion a year after public outcry over a $1,342 dinner tab raises serious questions about whether MTA recognizes that responsibility.

Might it be time to do what many Mainers support? And that would be to haul the Maine Turnpike Authority where it belongs: into the fold of state government. Then, perhaps the collected tolls could be used not only to keep up the fabulously maintained Turnpike, but also Maine’s lesser roads that seriously need attention.

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