Politics & Other Mistakes: Road hog

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I got the idea for this week’s column from somebody I was talking to on the phone a couple of months ago. Trouble is, I can’t remember who.

Fortunately, I took a few notes, preserving this forgotten genius’ innovative idea for improving Maine government, even as I consigned his or her identity to the cluttered recesses of a memory clogged with an extensive collection of lyrics from old Waylon Jennings songs, obscure Portland Sea Dogs fielding statistics and a half-dozen different recipes for whiskey smash cocktails – none of them, unfortunately, exactly like the superb ones they serve at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.


Al Diamon

If, as a result of the groundbreaking reform proposed in this column, I should happen to win a prestigious humanitarian award – the kind that comes with a large cash prize – I want to let my source know how grateful I am, not only for the honor and the money, but also for not having to do any original thinking this week.

On the other hand, if this modest proposal meets with dismissal, derision or disregard, it’s important to remember that I had absolutely nothing to do with it.

I admit this particular reform won’t solve the state budget crisis. It won’t provide health care to those who can’t afford it or the NFL Network to those who can. It won’t improve education, increase per-capita income, generate renewable energy or ban that creepy Burger King commercial with the two weirdos singing to the guy whose wife just threw him and all his stuff out of the house.

In short, it won’t deal with the major problems facing Maine.

It’ll do something better.

It’ll wipe the smiles off the smuggest mugs in state government.

No, not the Senate Democratic caucus.

I’m talking about the Maine Turnpike Authority.

The seven members of this esteemed body achieve their lofty posts by being nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, whereupon they’re free to do just about any damn thing they please.

Let’s say they wanted to raise tolls by an average of 30 percent next year to cover a budget shortfall – a shortfall caused by their failure to anticipate a decline in highway driving last summer during that record run of gas prices – even though there were warnings such a drop was coming.

No problem.

Suppose they wanted to spend $40 million on a snazzy toll plaza in York – an amount that’s more than the cost of the average new high school, an amount that’s only slightly less than all the profit Maine makes from the lottery in a year, an amount that would fund public campaign financing for all legislative and gubernatorial candidates for the next 10 elections.

Not a big deal.

Imagine if they decided it would be too much trouble to correct toll inequities penalizing drivers who take short trips on the pike, while rewarding those who travel long distances.

Hey, we’re trying to nap here.

And what if they built a lavish new headquarters for more than $11 million, sent sizable delegations to expensive conventions in foreign countries, paid their executive director (a guy in charge of just over 100 miles of road) more than the state commissioner of transportation (a guy in charge of 8,400 miles of blacktop)?

Don’t disturb us during happy hour.

Over the last few decades, this arrogance has prompted several attempts to abolish the authority and merge the pike with the Maine Department of Transportation. None of these initiatives went very far, mostly because of a fiscal quirk. If the state assumed control of the toll road, it would also become responsible for paying off the turnpike’s debt at a cost of nearly $30 million a year. That obligation is currently covered by money from tolls, but without a complex rewriting of Maine’s governmental borrowing laws, the responsibility would be shifted to taxpayers. Bond rating agencies would likely downgrade the state’s credit-worthiness because there would no longer be any dedicated revenue set aside to pay that IOU.

The authority can’t be destroyed. It’s like the plot of some 1950s B-movie. An experiment has gone horribly wrong. A monster is on the rampage. And just when everything seems hopeless, a young scientist, whose advice had earlier been ignored, speaks up.

The only way to restrain the creature, says he (in ‘50s movies, it’s always a he), is to change the law so the turnpike board isn’t appointed by the governor.

Let the voters elect them.

Watch that toll hike shrink. Notice how the cost of the new plaza in York plunges. Be amazed as a fairer rate structure suddenly appears. Observe as the threat of being thrown out of office makes everybody think twice about foreign junkets. Rejoice as political opponents use excessive staff salaries as a campaign issue, producing a noticeable shriveling of staff paychecks.

Being answerable to the public is just the lane change the Maine Turnpike needs to make.

It’s a great idea.

Since it isn’t mine, I can’t be accused of bragging.

There’s Wi-Fi at the next rest stop. E-mail me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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