The highway kind

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  October 17, 2007

For critics of government excess, the Maine Turnpike Authority is a big target. You can even see it from outer space.

“Ick,” said an observer on the International Space Station. “Somebody in Maine forgot to curb their enormous dog.”

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to get rid of the MTA by merging it with the state Department of Transportation. Those efforts have all failed. The reformers sometimes claim they can’t eliminate the authority because doing so wouldn’t save any money. Or they say there are legal complications involving the turnpike’s debt. But mostly, attempts to dissolve the MTA just fizzle out.

There’s a reason for that, and NASA is in a perfect position to tell us what it is: The Maine Turnpike Authority can’t be eliminated, because it has a reservoir of political juice so large you can see it from outer space.

“Ick,” said the space-station observer. “That giant dog really had to go.”

Over the last decade, the MTA has been involved in a series of costly mistakes and ethical lapses, but nobody on the staff has been fired and no member of the board of directors has been asked to resign. That’s serious clout.

NASA should have it so easy.

Let’s start with Transpass, the $20-million electronic toll-collection system installed in 1997 and uninstalled eight years later, mostly because it didn’t work. According to an op-ed column by turnpike executive director Paul Violette, Transpass was a success because it produced “savings that have more than paid for the Transpass system.” At the time Violette made that statement, that system was four years old, and he estimated it had cut costs by $4 million per year. That comes to $16 million in savings, which was $4 million less than the Transpass price tag.

Another problem: According to Violette, most of that reduction in expenses was due to the elimination of 68 toll takers. If that’s true, each of those ex-employees had been pulling down an annual salary and benefits package worth nearly $60,000.

Momma should have let her little boy grow up to be a toll taker.

One more difficulty with the alleged Transpass savings: Because the system lacked the ability to prevent drivers from cruising through toll plazas without paying, it cost the turnpike nearly a quarter-million bucks in lost revenue over its first four years.

Fortunately, the MTA came up with a simple solution to those problems: Spend more money.

For a mere $10 million, Transpass was replaced by E-ZPass. E-ZPass works most of the time and is compatible with the technology used in neighboring states, something nobody took into consideration when deciding to shell out $20 million for Transpass. But E-ZPass still might be another mistake. Some turnpikes are experimenting with stickers that carry bar codes. No transponders. No batteries. No obsolescence. And it costs a lot less, too.

Maybe the authority’s staff should be discussing this stuff with consultants. Oh, they did. Over plates of lobster and filet mignon, washed down with a $295 bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild ’99. Add in cocktails, appetizers, and dessert, and the bill for this 2006 “business dinner” involving five turnpike employees and four consultants came to $149 per person. But don’t worry. It wasn’t your toll money covering the tab. A consultant took care of that (see "E-ZPass on Ethics," by Lance Tapley, August 4, 2006).

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Related: E-ZPass on ethics, Law to address state ethics shortcomings, Road to riches, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Public Transportation, Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation,  More more >
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