June 6, 2012

Our View: Old regime not behind
higher turnpike tolls

Increases are needed for highway expansion, not to pay for the previous director's excesses.

fter regime change, it's always tempting to blame all the new administration's troubles on the last one.

click image to enlarge

A proposed toll increase is needed to pay for the $135 million widening of the Maine Turnpike, completed eight years ago.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Given that, Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills has shown remarkable restraint by not hiding behind his disgraced predecessor when announcing a toll increase for the 109-mile highway.

Yes, former director Paul Violette did confess to eating in the best restaurants, sleeping in the best hotels and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gift cards and perks during his time running the agency, all on the backs of motorists who paid tolls. And yes, Violette is going to jail for his excesses.

But, no. This toll increase is needed to pay for the $135 million widening of the highway, completed eight years ago, not to cover Violette's tab. It would be tempting to blame him, but unproductive.

The truth is, highway construction is expensive. Adding a lane to each side of the turnpike is like building a brand-new two-lane road. That's the kind of project that would be unthinkable in today's economy.

And many people argue that the expanded roadway has reduced congestion, although it's also true that actual use of the highway has not always kept up with projections made at the time the widening was proposed. Still, as Mills says, it doesn't make sense to second-guess decisions made 15 years ago, when regular traffic jams were a persistent problem.

The pertinent question for the MTA is who should pay for the widening. The best answer is the people who use the highway and benefit from the extra lanes.

The Maine Turnpike is funded by a user fee, and it's hard to argue with that method of financing. The people who use the road pay for both its construction and upkeep. That includes visitors to Maine and truckers who would otherwise not pay any Maine taxes to support transportation.

While roads and bridges all across the state are crumbling, the turnpike is in top shape. This also speaks to the soundness of the toll system.

It's no surprise that the toll increases are unpopular, and we will pay attention to the public hearings to see if they are fair as designed.

But we won't spend too much time worrying if this increase can be blamed on the previous administration.

 

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