Road to riches

The Pike gouges
By AL DIAMON  |  November 18, 2009

The Maine Turnpike Authority wants to pay between $34 million and $56 million to build a new toll plaza in York. Don't let that huge price tag fool you. What the MTA is buying is basically a row of customized porta-potties.

Oh sure, there are also a few E-Z Pass readers, cash registers, and concrete barriers. But toll plazas look like the sort of construction project any competent builder could slap up in a couple of days.

Taking into account the inevitable delays caused by electricians (the special wiring is probably only manufactured by one factory located in Suriname), plumbers (a state certification process may be required to make sure everything really does E-Z Pass), building inspectors ("You built this place too close to the road"), and lawsuits (construction threatens the habitat of endangered bacteria that feed on F-150s), the whole thing could still be completed in less time than it takes to play the average World Series.

Estimated cost (figuring in the usual outrageous markup for any public project overseen by incompetent bureaucrats): $250,000.

But let's assume there are design subtleties that can't be appreciated by an amateur like me, such as computers that can detect the approach of a turnpike-authority board member's vehicle and automatically open a special lane for its unimpeded progress.

To be safe, I'll double the budget to a half-million dollars. Or $33.5 million less than the lowest figure put forth by the MTA.

Here are more reasons why I don't believe a toll plaza could possibly cost mega-millions:

A couple of years ago, the pike built itself an opulent headquarters in Portland for a mere $12 million.

The Maine court system just opened a state-of-the-art judicial center in Bangor that's larger and more complicated than any highway barrier. It only set the taxpayers back $37 million.

Earlier this month, the voters approved a bond issue to repair 133 bridges and pave 200 miles of road. The bill for all that work will come to several millions less than the estimated cost of a single toll plaza.

The York project could soak up more dough than the annual profits from all state lottery games ($52 million), the value of Maine agricultural exports to foreign countries in 2008 ($36 million), the price of the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Augusta ($33 million), the amount the federal government has allocated for low-income heating assistance in Maine this winter ($13 million), or the city of Portland's capital-improvement budgets for the last five years ($50 million).

The Great Barrier of Grief will require more cash than the 2008 US Senate race, the most expensive political campaign in Maine history ($14 million); the sum the state's municipalities paid for general assistance in 2008 ($11.5 million); and the Maine Department of Transportation's annual budget for mass transit ($12 million).

In June, Pennsylvania newspaper publisher Richard Connor bought the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, and Morning Sentinel for a reported $30 million to $40 million. Newspapers are a bargain compared to toll plazas.

According to Mainebiz magazine, the 40 highest-priced houses sold in the state last year went for a combined $11.9 million. Hardly enough for a few signs saying "Lane Closed."

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