The road goes on forever

Maine Turnpike Authority's totalitarian rule
By AL DIAMON  |  March 9, 2011

If the Maine Turnpike Authority were a country, it'd be North Korea.

Consider these uncanny parallels:

• Both the turnpike authority and the communist nation have resisted all efforts to unite them with their spiritual relatives — for the latter, with South Korea; for the former, with the Maine Department of Transportation.

• Both behave in ways other government entities find reckless — North Korea fires off missiles and torpedoes ships; the pike bosses hand out hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of gift certificates and sponsorships to organizations that have nothing to do with running a toll road, award no-bid contracts to an engineering firm with which it has a long and cozy relationship, and refuse to turn over surplus money to MDOT as supposedly required by state law.

• North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il lives in splendor while much of the population is on the verge of starvation. As Maine struggled through a crippling recession, the MTA handed out bonuses and awards to favored employees and allowed traveling executives to stay in first-class hotels, rent limos, and watch pay-per-view porn.

Bizarre statements? North Korea's official pronouncements read like the work of a drunken, second-rate pulp novelist: "The US imperialist robbers have stretched their crooked tentacle of crime-woven aggression with wild ambition." Now, here's turnpike spokesman Scott Tompkins, quoted in the Kennebec Journal last month, responding to a report critical of the authority's practices: "When you take a step back and get to the 20,000-foot level, it's an extremely well-run organization. Practices that no longer exist are being scrutinized so much."

One-party rule? In North Korea, it's the Communists. At the pike's headquarters, a bunch of aging Democrats are still in charge.

Of course, there are some differences between the two. Unlike Kim Jong-Il, MTA chairman Gerard Conley doesn't require his followers to cut their hair in a bizarre, cactus-inspired fashion and dress like ex-members of Devo. (Turnpike employees do that on their own.) Conley lacks Kim's power to have his critics thrown in prison or summarily executed. He can, however, order their vocal cords removed. Without anesthesia. And while there's no doubt the North Koreans possess atomic weapons, the turnpike is merely rumored to have the capacity for nuclear retaliation.

For decades, world leaders have been trying to resolve the Korean problem. For nearly as long, state leaders have been attempting to figure out how to regain control over the state's major highway. Neither group has made any detectable progress. Now, Republican Governor Paul LePage is promising to succeed where others have failed.

LePage has told Kim to "kiss my butt" and pledged to "punch [him] in the nose."

A spokesman for the governor later explained that when LePage made those remarks, he was referring not to the North Korean, but to Conley. "He gets them mixed up," the spokesman said. "It's the weird haircuts."

It might also be the debt. North Korea is virtually bankrupt. Its official currency, the turd, is considered worthless on international monetary exchanges, except that it can be used to purchase stock in Borders bookstores. If the two Koreas became one, the South would be forced to pick up an enormous tab. Not to mention a zillion remaindered copies of Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino's book.

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