Urge turnpike authority to help Mainers statewide

Posted Oct. 03, 2010, at 6:01 p.m.

If you live in the Bangor region and think that you don’t pay to use the Maine Turnpike, think again.

A single tractor-trailer driving from Kittery to Bangor has to pay $20 in tolls to the Maine Turnpike Authority on its way. Those tolls translate into higher prices for virtually every product you buy in local stores. Whether you’re buying a pair of sneakers in Bangor or groceries in Millinocket, you’re paying more in order to chip in for a trucker’s turnpike tolls.

It goes the other way, too: The Maine Turnpike effectively imposes a $20 tax on every truckload of goods that Maine exports to the rest of the nation. The high cost of turnpike tolls means that warehouses and manufacturers in Bangor are that much less competitive against similar businesses in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which means that Maine workers have fewer job options and lower wages than they otherwise might.

And then there’s the cost the Maine Turnpike imposes on our economy by forcing us to burn ever more oil. The turnpike’s administrators want to spend more than $100 million in toll revenues on a new 9-mile widening inside Portland’s city limits (a stretch of highway where traffic actually has been in decline for the past 10 years).

Some in northern Maine might argue that that money could be better spent on extending passenger rail toward Bangor, or on repairing rural roads and bridges.

To be sure, the turnpike provides an important service. But we unfortunately can’t say the same of the Maine Turnpike Authority, the 60-year-old bureaucracy that collects the tolls and sets aside an unusually large sum for its own administrative payroll.

In an age where most freight is shipped by truck, the Maine Turnpike Authority effectively controls a monopoly on interstate commerce in Maine. That means that it can charge us virtually whatever it wants. Just last year, the authority raised its tolls by as much as 67 percent, in the midst of a massive recession. In a global econ-omy that is highly reliant on interstate and international trade, Maine businesses already under tremendous economic stress had few choices beyond paying the toll increase or shutting down.

While other monopolies, such as railroads and electrical lines, have their rates regulated by public utilities commissions that ensure that we receive the best possible services at the lowest possible price, there are no similar safeguards to protect Maine shippers against the whims of the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Nor is there any way to make the turnpike authority pitch in to help meet the state’s goals to reduce oil dependency. Every year, traffic on the Maine Turnpike burns more oil than all of New England’s power plants, combined.

But instead of providing convenient, low-cost solutions, the turnpike is relentlessly focused on spending more of our money to make us burn even more oil — and paying more tolls. The agency’s proposed budget for sustainable modes of transportation, such as commuter vans and park-and-ride lots, is minuscule — the turnpike authority actually spends more money to build fast-food travel plazas.

A look at the turnpike authority’s 10-year plan brings up some more serious causes for concern. The agency is making plans to spend upwards of $35 million on a new tollbooth in York County, plus that $100 million widening in Portland.

This is clearly not the best use of our money in these cash-strapped times.

A recent investigation from Maine’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability — an independent state watchdog organization — revealed that for years now, the turnpike authority has refused to contribute any funding whatsoever to the upkeep of Maine’s crumbling roads and bridges, even though it is required to do so by law.

Northern Maine businesses contribute millions of dollars to the turnpike’s bottom line, but the absence of accountability makes it impossible to convince turnpike executives who live and work in Portland that the rest of the state’s vital infrastructure might be more important than a shiny new tollbooth.

If Maine’s leaders are serious about energy independence, fixing Maine’s roads, and reducing our economic exposure to volatile oil prices, then they need to get serious about reforming and modernizing the Maine Turnpike Authority’s 60-year-old bureaucracy, and making sure that it’s more accountable to reducing transportation costs for all of Maine’s people and businesses.

Christian MilNeil is a member of the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation, www.mainesustainabletransport.com.

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