AUGUSTA – Lawmakers on Friday criticized the Maine Turnpike Authority for lavish spending, high salaries and its “cozy” relationship with a firm that has done all of its engineering work for decades.

The authority’s activities were detailed in a report released last week by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Speaking to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Friday, turnpike authority officials said they are addressing criticisms in the report. The authority has changed its spending practices and plans to open up engineering work to competitive bidding, they said.

The turnpike authority is a quasi-government organization that operates and maintains the 106-mile toll road. It generatesabout $100 million in annual revenues.

Republican lawmakers were particularly critical of the authority.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, was upset that the authority spent $577,000 on lobbying activities from 2005 to 2009.

He told Lucien Gosselin, vice chairman of the authority’s board of directors, that several lobbyists were working the State House hallways Friday to put a positive spin on the OPEGA report.

“Call the dogs off,” he told Gosselin. “You don’t need to lobby this report like a bill in the Legislature.”

Legislators were also angry about the authority’s past spending habits. Over the five-year period, the authority’s travel and meal expenses totaled $1.1 million.

The spending included more than $157,000 in gift certificate purchases from various hotel chains and restaurants in 2005 and 2006. The authority had bought the gift certificates and donated them to a variety of organizations.

Turnpike officials said they have put a stop to that kind of spending.

Gosselin said the authority’s board of directors was unaware of some of the activities described in the report.

“I can assure you that many of my colleagues on the board are disturbed by some of the findings, just as you are,” he said.

Paul Violette, executive director of the authority, said the report identified problems for the authority to work on.

“It was an enlightening, thorough process,” he said. “We will be better for it than before.”

The OPEGA report said the turnpike manages its construction projects well, but it was critical of its relationship with HNTB, a company based in Kansas City, Mo., that has overseen the turnpike’s engineering work since the authority was established in 1941.

The report concluded a conflict of interest exists in the firm’s dual role of first planning projects and then earning money from building them.

Several residents of York — who have been critical of the turnpike authority’s plans to build a new tollbooth plaza in town — said the relationship has resulted in plans to build a new tollbooth plaza that would be larger and more expensive than necessary.

Turnpike authority officials said Friday that HNTB will continue to work on planned projects and provide ongoing oversight, but the authority in the future will put its engineering work out to bid.

Several lawmakers said the authority is spending too much on salaries, noting that 28 employees receive more than $100,000 in salaries and benefits.

An analysis by the Maine Heritage Policy Center found the turnpike authority’s total payroll since 1998 has risen from $17 million to $29 million, an increase of 72 percent.

The authority’s 10 highest-paid employees saw their pay grow by 123 percent during that period, according to the study. During that same time period, payroll in the private sector rose 46 percent.

Turnpike officials Friday disputed the center’s numbers but did not provide details.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the committee’s co-chair, said that wages and benefits at the turnpike authority were “out of whack” with the private sector.

The committee will discuss the OPEGA report at a workshop on Feb. 18.

The committee must decide whether to accept the report or ask for additional analysis. The committee may also recommend legislation.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: tbell@mainetoday.com