Road hog

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  December 3, 2008

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's 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.

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 8400 miles of blacktop)?

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