AUGUSTA — Without dissent, a key committee urged the Legislature on Thursday to turn thumbs down on Gov. Paul LePage’s bid to fold the Maine Turnpike Authority into the Department of Transportation.

With little time and not much evidence that the move would help, the Transportation Committee had no trouble recommending leaving the quasi-independent state agency alone.

The turnpike’s executive director, Peter Mills, declined to take a stand on the governor’s proposal but presented a compelling case for the status quo.

He said, for example, that turning the turnpike over to the Transportation Department would likely make it impossible to add a needed third lane between Exit 44 and the Falmouth Spur north of Portland.

But in a broader sense, he said there’s no duplication or problems that combining the turnpike with the DOT would resolve.

“We love working with them. And they love working with us,” he told the committee.

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LePage’s proposal would order the turnpike’s overseers to stop selling bonds this year and to pay off existing ones within a decade. It would also turn transfer all of its assets to the Transportation Department after 2027, removing all of its toll facilities except the one in York.

LePage said during a recent radio interview that adding the turnpike to the DOT’s already long list of roads would be “a drop in the bucket” and would help everyone by eliminating all the tolls except the one at York.

That would mean cheaper commutes for Mainers and significantly lower costs for truckers, he said, which ought to translate into more affordable goods for consumers.

The governor said that when he lived in Waterville and in Lewiston “it offended me” that he couldn’t travel without paying a toll.

In making his pitch for the turnpike, Mills cited several costly improvements specifically aimed at helping Lewiston and Auburn over the years.

He said that after lawmakers from the area asked the turnpike to increase its capacity to help deliver traffic in and out of the cities, it removed tolls on nearby exits and built a new interchange in Sabattus.

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“We took the tolls off Lewiston,” he said, to allow for development of the Alfred Plourde Parkway that has proven so successful. It also rebuilt Exit 80, clearing the way for a new Wal-Mart distribution center that’s been a boon to the area’s economic development, Mills said.

He said Wal-Mart “would never have come to Lewiston if it weren’t for the turnpike and the reliability of that road.”

LePage said the authority promised to take away the tolls when its bonds were paid. But instead, he said, “they’ve borrowed and borrowed and borrowed.”

Mills reminded legislators that his predecessors were ready to pay off the last construction bonds and remove the tolls in the early 1980s, but the Legislature opted to leave them in place, using some of the toll revenue for general transportation costs for years. The turnpike still devotes 5 percent of its toll revenue to projects it works out with the DOT that aren’t strictly part of its assets, Mills said.

He said the transportation department suffers a disadvantage in that it has to rely largely on gasoline taxes. “When we go to electric cars, where’s the gas tax at that point? Zip.”

Meanwhile, the turnpike can ensure that tolls cover its needs.

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Mills cited a light pole in a section of highway that it bought from the DOT for $30 million to help fund a bridge project as an example of what can happen. He said turnpike inspectors, who check out all of the authority’s assets annually, found the pole had deteriorated so badly that it was one big storm away from falling across six lanes of traffic. It was removed the other day, Mills said.

He said he asked engineers recently if they could think of anything along the turnpike that remained from its original construction in 1947. They were silent in response, Mills said, an indication of how much work it takes to maintain what’s already there.

In addition, Mills said, all of the turnpike’s bridges north of Portland were built in 1955 “and they don’t live any longer than that.”

“We’re tearing down bridges left and right,” he said, and have already replaced most of them.

Mills said the best argument for LePage’s bill is that officials need to be careful about delegating power to agencies like his. He said they should only exist if they can show they’re trustworthy and well-managed.

He said he worried daily about whether he’s succeeding in doing that. “There’s so much going on on that road that I can’t keep track of it all alone,” Mills said.

Mills said, though, there are some agencies he has some “deep reservations” about. He said he’d tell legislators which ones privately.

He added, though, that if the Legislature lacks confidence in the authority he heads, “you should dissolve us.”

A motorist and her dog wait for change at a toll booth in July 2012 in Biddeford.


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