AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to eliminate the Maine Turnpike Authority is another demonstration that he is as aggressive as anyone when it comes to cutting government-imposed fees, no matter how small.
LePage has opposed, vetoed and legislated against everything from tax increases to unfunded mandates on the executive branch to pennies more on electricity bills. Now he has his sights set on the Maine Turnpike toll plazas in West Gardiner, where the toll is $1, and New Gloucester, where the toll is $1.75 or $2.25, depending on which direction you’re traveling.
“He does not believe it is right for Maine citizens and businesses to have to pay tolls just due to the fact they live in a certain part of the state where many other Maine citizens do not have to,” wrote Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, in an email response to questions. “As you know, the governor has a history of opposing taxes and fees where they are unnecessary.”
But “unnecessary” means different things to different people and opposition to LePage’s proposal, which was just unveiled this week, is already mounting.
A legal path to the end of the road
“If you had to have a plan to end the Maine Turnpike Authority, there are only certain ways you can do it and this bill is well written,” said Peter Mills, the authority’s executive director, who was appointed by LePage. “So this is legally possible, even though politically and financially it’s a terrible idea.”
There is support as well, and from a key lawmaker: Assistant House Minority Leader Eleanor Espling, R-New Gloucester, who sponsored the bill on LePage’s behalf.
“I think it has some merit,” said Espling. “I think it’s worth some good discussion and a hearing.”
The bill is scheduled to be presented to the Transportation Committee on Thursday.
A vehicle for change
The bill would bar the turnpike authority from any new borrowing and require it to pay off its existing debt and dissolve itself into the Maine Department of Transportation within 10 years. The authority would sell off all unnecessary equipment, buildings and property and remove all turnpike toll plazas, with the exception of the one in York, where the toll is currently $3.
The York toll plaza generates about $60 million a year in revenue for the authority, which is less than half of the revenue the authority is taking in now. Mills estimates that a total of $140 million will be collected in fiscal year 2018, 95 percent of which will be from tolls. A full two-thirds of toll revenue is paid by motorists from out-of-state.
The authority employs approximately 330 full-time workers. If LePage’s bill is enacted, its impact on employment levels at the authority and Department of Transportation wouldn’t be decided for years.
The bill’s provision to pay off the authority’s debt within 10 years would be difficult but not impossible, said Mills.
The authority has not had to borrow in several years, and Mills said it won’t for at least several more. However, due to a string of bridges on the 109-mile stretch of turnpike that all turned about 70 years old at the same time, the authority has about $380 million in debt, which according to the current schedule won’t be paid off for roughly 26 years.
Mills estimates that the only way to accomplish what would be to raise tolls to generate about $30 million more per year.
“We would have to raise tolls right now by quite a bit,” said Mills, who estimated that motorists could see a hike in the magnitude of 25 percent.
Under LePage’s plan, revenue from the York toll plaza would shift to the Department of Transportation, but overall the department’s revenue stream would be in trouble over the long term. Not only would the department take responsibility for upkeep of more roadways, but state and federal gas tax revenues, which make up 80 percent of the department’s more than $550 million annual budget, are decreasing as Americans transition to more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Many proposals around this problem have come and gone at the state and federal levels, but so far the question of how to maintain transportation infrastructure has gone unanswered. The LePage administration proposed a bill this year to place a $250 annual registration fee on hybrid vehicles and $350 on electric vehicles, along with re-routing municipal excise tax revenues to the state, but that bill died after the Legislature’s Transportation Committee unanimously recommended against it.
There are other attempts to similarly diversify the DOT’s revenue, including one bill aimed at a study commission to explore the issue.
“We have made it known that we are seeking needed revenue for the future, but that lands in the hands of policymakers,” said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation. “It does need to be dealt with but how we get there is really more of a legislative effort.”
Espling said while most of the attention centers on revenue, she wants to focus on the expenses.
“Right now we’re funding two systems, the Maine Turnpike Authority and the DOT, and all the operational costs for both,” she said. “Maine people are using these roads and they’re paying for two systems. If you merge those together, there would be savings.”
Caught up in the debate this week was a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Andrew McLean of Gorham, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, to allow construction of a turnpike connector to Gorham. It received unanimous support in the Legislature but was vetoed by LePage, who said he wanted the project done by the DOT and not the turnpike authority. The veto was overridden this week, unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 125-18 in the House.
“Recently, I stated publically that I support a connector in this area, but I don’t think that it should be a toll highway with the Maine Turnpike Authority,” wrote LePage in the veto letter. “Maine citizens already pay enough in tolls when they travel in certain areas of the state and we should not add additional toll costs to Maine citizens and businesses.”
LePage’s bill has only two legislative sponsors and both are Republicans: Espling of New Gloucester and Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn. Both are from communities whose residents would be affected directly by the removal of nearby tollbooths.
A bridge too far?
McLean said he views LePage’s proposal as a bad idea and said most if not all of his Democratic colleagues do too.
“Every year, the Maine Department of Transportation says they need an extra $160 million just to keep up with basic maintenance,” said McLean. “The idea that the DOT has the money to take care of 109 miles of four-lane highway is not feasible, it’s not rational and it doesn’t make any economic sense.”
McLean said the turnpike authority is working well under Mills, a former Republican lawmaker, and Bruce Van Note, the authority’s director of policy and planning.
“If you go from mile 108 to mile 110 on Interstate 95, you can see a difference,” said McLean. “The difference is that the Maine Turnpike Authority handles up to mile marker 109 and mile 110 is where the DOT takes over … The condition of the road is not as good.”
LePage’s latest proposal sits on top of a mountain of bold proposals he’s made this year, ranging from re-inventing the public school administration structure and funding formula to revamping social service access rules. If the last four years of divided majorities in the House and Senate is any indicator, the MTA bill and many of his other initiatives are destined to go nowhere.
That will neither solve nor erase the problem of maintaining roads and bridges, especially as gas-powered vehicles slowly give way to vehicles powered by other means. Whatever the solution is, it’s going to hit motorists in their pocketbooks.
As Mills put it in an email to the Bangor Daily News: “As we are chauffeured around in our self-driving electric cars, texting — and even drinking and smoking dope — without violating the law, the demands on our streets and highways will likely be greater than ever.”