The resignation of Maine Turnpike Authority Director Paul Violette is not enough to fix what is wrong with the organization. The time has come for the state to explore absorbing the MTA into the Department of Transportation, a course of action already embraced by Gov. Paul LePage. Whether that takeover would be hostile or friendly depends on many factors, but the evidence is clear — the MTA stands out like an inefficient, unaccountable sore thumb in a world where public institutions are under scrutiny from tight-fisted taxpayers.
The MTA, a quasi-governmental agency that manages Interstate 95 from Kittery to Augusta, came under fire in recent weeks for the revelation that its director had handed out $157,000 in gift certificates to organizations affiliated with the MTA. The director’s largesse, bestowed in 2005 and 2006, was not recorded, raising even more questions about the MTA’s ethics and accountability.
Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican, wants to further investigate the director’s actions, which came to light through a report issued by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. He is prepared to issue subpoenas to get to the bottom of the mess.
Leaving that inquiry for legislators to pursue, the revelation that is most troubling from a macro perspective is that the MTA had $157,000 to toss around to friends and acquaintances like party favors.
The MTA was formed before the state even had a Department of Transportation, and its mission was to oversee construction of the interstate highway from Kittery to Fort Kent. The first section was built as a toll road — and remains as such. An argument in favor of keeping the turnpike management separate from direct state government oversight was that it removed politics from decisions about where the highway would go and how well it would be maintained. Both those concerns are in the past. If it managed the turnpike, DOT would ensure it is well-maintained as the critical link to the rest of New England.
Another historical wrinkle that may explain the recent developments is that in the 1990s, the MTA was required to transfer its operating surpluses to the state. Surpluses have largely disappeared, perhaps — a cynic may postulate — because the authority spends it on high salaries for staff and benefits like gift certificates.
Rather than going on a witch hunt, the Legislature would do better to begin the process of folding the turnpike authority into DOT. Even if huge savings are not realized, this is the right move. Tolls could be raised to fund related, off-turnpike work, or they could be reduced or eliminated. And by doing so, management of Maine’s most important highway would be more closely linked to Maine people.