The Maine Turnpike Authority would have to steer at least 3 percent of its annual operating revenue and any surpluses to the state Department of Transportation under a bill that’s taking shape in the Legislature.

The proposal also would increase the authority’s contribution to the Zoom bus, which now runs between Portland and Biddeford, so the commuter service could expand to Lewiston-Auburn and Augusta.

Those measures could help pay for statewide highway improvements and transportation alternatives during a budget crisis, supporters say. They also reflect a view that the turnpike authority, an independent agency financed through tolls and revenue bonds, is flush with cash and could do more to share the wealth.

“Yes, they have the money,” said Rep. Bradley Moulton, R-York, a lead sponsor of the pending legislation.

Moulton, a lawyer who has a background in transportation planning, said he would like to see more integration of the turnpike authority and the Department of Transportation.

Many people in his hometown are fighting the authority’s plan to build a new toll plaza there. His bill, initiated by conservation and anti-highway activists, taps into a simmering resentment of the turnpike authority.

On Wednesday, the Maine Heritage Policy Center held a news conference to call attention to what it says are skyrocketing payroll costs for the authority over the past 12 years.

And on Friday, a legislative hearing is scheduled on a recent report by the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which found examples of staff charges for limousines and costly hotel rooms. Those were isolated incidents tied to national travel, but the findings made headlines and portrayed turnpike management as living large when many Mainers are strapped for cash.

“We’re a popular target whenever there’s a revenue shortfall,” said Scott Tompkins, a spokesman for the turnpike authority. “There’s a perception that we’re flush with cash.”

He noted that the authority already makes substantial contributions to the state.

The accountability office found, for instance, that the turnpike authority has transferred $75 million to the state since 1994. The biggest portion, $34 million, was given to the Department of Transportation in 1996. The authority continues to pay off bonds for that money.

The authority also pays for state police patrols on the 106-mile toll road, and has shared costs with the state for various interchanges, intersections and projects, including the train station in Wells and the service plaza in West Gardiner.

Most recently, the authority agreed to pay $3 million a year for the next 30 years to help replace and repair the bridges connecting Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H. That contribution could help offset the estimated $506 million cost. The deteriorating bridges are a major concern in York County, and some residents and officials have called for the turnpike authority to lend a hand.

“I think there’s a misperception,” Tompkins said. “What we do for the Maine DOT isn’t widely known.”

One reason is the way cost sharing has evolved.

A referendum in 1991 required the turnpike authority to give the state any annual operating surplus — the money left after operating expenses, bonds and reserves are accounted for. Those annual transfers, ranging from $4.7 million to $17.4 million, were made until the $34 million bond was issued in 1996.

Since then, the authority has not transferred any operating surplus to the MDOT. It maintains that it has no operating surplus, and notes that it now has $400 million in outstanding bond obligations.

The accountability office tried to sort out the matter, but found the law’s language imprecise. The issue of the operating surplus is expected to be revisited this year by the Legislature.

“The money trail is very complicated to follow,” said Jane West, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation.

West is associated with the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation, which wants to reduce traffic congestion and the need for highway expansion in the Portland area. It produced a report in the fall that called for the turnpike authority to contribute $7 million a year to expand Zoom bus service. Moulton’s bill captures those goals and lays out a timetable for routes and trip frequencies.

The authority already gives $115,000 a year to Zoom, but disputes the perceived level of demand for new and expanded service. Both sides have offered competing statistics on ridership, amid speculation about whether rising gas prices can force enough commuters out of their cars to make the added subsidy cost-effective.

Those questions will have to be sorted out by lawmakers, who also will want to consider how the turnpike authority’s proposed 3 percent contribution would help roads in their districts.

The authority had operating revenue of $106 million in 2009, mostly from tolls. A 3 percent share would produce $3.2 million to spread around the state for highway projects.

But the equation isn’t so simple, Tompkins said. The turnpike authority also spent more than $87 million on operations, maintenance, interest payments and other expenses.

As Moulton’s bill gets drafted, it is attracting a diverse mix of co-sponsors. Moulton said they include members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee: Sen. Ronald Collins, R-York, a committee co-chair; Rep. George Hogan, D-Old Orchard Beach; and Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook. Other supporters are Rep. Ben Chipman, a Portland independent, and Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn.

Support, so far, appears to be coming largely from lawmakers who live in communities along the turnpike. It remains to be seen whether the prospect of additional highway funds and new bus service appeals to lawmakers from northern Maine, and to the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.

“It’s critical,” West said, “to get those folks on board.” 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]