AUGUSTA, Maine – Gov. Paul LePage says he supports raising tolls on the Maine Turnpike, but says poor management decisions in the past are requiring increases that could have been avoided or reduced.
“We don’t have a choice,” the governor said when asked if he supports a toll increase.
LePage said the bonds issued by the Maine Turnpike Authority, and paid for by tolls, are structured in such a way that if tolls are not increased sufficiently to pay the bonds, the bondholders can step in and take over the turnpike to assure tolls are increased.
“What’s happening is that we have to pay the bonds and there is not the money,” he said in an interview Thursday.
But the governor said he believes the size of the toll increase could have been reduced or eliminated if the agency had been properly managed under Paul Violette’s tenure.
“I think that had it been managed properly, it wouldn’t have been necessary,” LePage said. “But I think that short of the state coming up with the money, it’s the only way.”
“There are good reasons why Paul Violette is gone and we put in Peter Mills to run the turnpike,” he said.
Violette was executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority for 23 years before resigning last year as his management of the MTA came under increasing scrutiny. Violette pleaded guilty in February to a charge of felony theft for unauthorized use of turnpike gift cards and using turnpike authority credit cards for personal travel, meals and other expenses. It totaled about $430,000 and Violette is serving a three and a half year prison sentence.
“I think we have the right person in there running things now in Peter Mills,” LePage said.
Mills is not sure if the need for an increase could have been eliminated, but said it might have been reduced if the MTA had moved to reduce operational costs more aggressively years ago.
“You can’t get around the cost of what amounts to rebuilding a six-lane highway and it has to be paid for,” he said. Mills said he had not done an analysis of what might have been done to reduce costs in the past because he is focused on cutting costs now.
“We lose about 20 positions a year through attrition and we just announced eliminating 20 positions,” he said. “We are cutting costs.”
The authority is responsible for management of more than 100 miles of interstate from Kittery to Augusta. The agency employs about 450 full, part-time and seasonal employees and collects approximately $103 million in tolls every year. It is overseen by a seven-member board whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature.
Mills said the MTA is seeking “concessions” from its union members to further reduce the operational costs of the authority. The union claims the MTA is not bargaining in good faith as required by law.
“As to the toll increases we have proposed, we are listening to the presentations,” he said. “I can tell you now I am looking at supporting some changes and I will probably look at more before we are done.”
The MTA has held three listening sessions and Mills says he will continue efforts to get public comment on how to create a fairer toll structure.
Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, a member of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and a critic of the proposed toll increase, said he is not disputing the need for a toll hike, he is disputing the way it is structured.
“Almost everybody that testified in Lewiston didn’t contest the need for a toll increase,” he said, “What we want is to be treated fairly.”
Carey said the MTA staff proposal would have those that live in Lewiston and Auburn pay three times the amount to drive the same distance as some other users of the toll road.
Mills said he hopes the authority will decide on a toll structure at its July 19 meeting.