PORTLAND, Maine — Far from getting rid of the Maine Turnpike Authority, as he originally proposed as late as last week, Maine Gov. Paul LePage said Friday the MTA and the tolls paid by users of the Maine Turnpike could be used to fund other transportation projects, including repairs to Memorial Bridge in Kittery and a long-discussed east-west highway.
LePage made his comments during a brief public event at MTA headquarters on Congress Street, at which he expressed support for naming Peter Mills of Cornville the interim executive director of the MTA.
Mills said his first priority would be to restore public trust in the quasi-governmental agency, which has been under fire recently for the way it has handled a number of financial matters. The criticism prompted its executive director, Paul Violette, to step down last week.
LePage on Friday backed off previous comments about folding the MTA into the Maine Department of Transportation.
“People have been asking me whether or not I’m for or against the turnpike authority,” LePage said. “… In the short term, you could roll the turnpike into the [MDOT] and it would help the state. In the long term, I think the turnpike authority has a major value to the state in being able to help us develop the state for economic development.”
Using toll revenues to fund other state projects has been a concern for Lewiston-Auburn area residents, who have complained they are funding toll-free portions of I-95 and I-295.
After the public event, Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for the governor said that “Ideally, if we can remove all but the York plaza toll booth, that would solve some of the equity issues. … It really shouldn’t cost people in Lewiston-Auburn to commute to Portland.”
Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, said the current toll situation is “discrimination against Lewiston-Auburn.”
Morrison said he wasn’t confident that the promised overhaul of the MTA would fix the toll inequity that dogs his members. He said he would like to see tolls added to I-295, but he didn’t see any momentum for such a proposal.
“People don’t see it the same way we do,” he said. “They don’t live here.”
Mills, a former Republican state senator, said he wasn’t aware of any support in the administration to add tolls on I-295.
The viability of removing the New Gloucester and Gardiner tolls on the turnpike is also uncertain. The MTA collects about $100 million per year in tolls on the 106-mile road.
It has about $40 million in outstanding bonds. The state would take on that debt if the authority was absorbed by MDOT, an outcome that makes some Republican lawmakers uneasy.
Mills said he wasn’t prepared to comment on the toll-equity issue, although he acknowledged it was a concern. He also hoped that technology within the turnpike’s E-ZPass system would someday allow all motorists to be electronically charged according to the distance they drive on the turnpike.
“It will be just like the paper system, which is the one I grew up with,” he said.
Mills said installing that system could take some time.
In his interim position, Mills, 67, is expected to stay on at least until August, when Violette’s term would have ended. Violette headed the authority for 23 years. He resigned after a probe into the agency’s spending practices and the transparency of its budget.
Although the Legislature oversees the MTA’s operating budget, it has little oversight of the agency’s repair-maintenance budget, a $33 million fund in which a watchdog group discovered questionable expenditures.
GOP lawmakers have demanded oversight of the fund.
Mills’ appointment by the MTA board of directors was applauded by LePage. The board also hired Roger Mallar as a consultant. Mallar was MDOT chief under Govs. Ken Curtis, James Longley and Joseph Brennan.
As for the MTA’s credibility issues, Mills said, “We have to remind ourselves that this is a public entity that survives only because of its transparency and its acceptance by the public.”
LePage said he wanted to make sure the MTA is positioned for the “next 60 years and make sure it’s a public entity.”
Mills’ pay had yet to be determined. He said he’s asked to make less than Violette and that he woudn’t take any benefits.
Violette had an annual salary of $128,378 and a benefits package worth $29,179.