Gov. Paul LePage said on Friday that the Maine Turnpike Authority must show him it can be well-run before he abandons his idea of merging it with the Maine Department of Transportation.

“If they can show me it has long-term viability, it’s going to stay,” he said in an interview. “If they show me that it has outlived its usefulness and we need to look at something else, we will do that as well.”

LePage’s comments came after meeting with the MTA’s board of directors and its new interim executive director, Peter Mills, at the agency’s headquarters in Portland.

Mills, who has argued that such a merger would be a mistake, said the authority needs to earn the trust of the governor, Legislature and the public. Mills said LePage told him he will have adequate time to implement reforms.

“We are an organization on probation, and we accept it,” Mills said.

The authority’s board of directors on Thursday chose Mills, a former Republican legislator, to lead the agency. LePage had recommended Mills for the job.

LePage told the board on Friday that he wants the governor’s office to be more involved with the authority, a quasi-state agency that is overseen by a seven-member board.

While the governor appoints the board members, it’s difficult for any one governor to exert much control. Members serve seven-year terms, and LePage won’t be able to make his first appointment until August 2012, when the term of Vice Chairman Lucien Gosselin expires.

The Maine Department of Transportation controls one seat, currently filled by Bruce Van Note, the department’s deputy commissioner. Van Note had urged the board to appoint Mills.

Mills replaced Paul Violette, who was executive director for 23 years until he resigned last week amid questions about the authority’s spending practices.

Violette came under fire in a report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which said the authority distributed $157,000 worth of gift certificates to various organizations in 2005 and 2006. The authority has been unable to provide any record of the transactions.

The report also noted that the authority spent money on limousine services and stays at expensive hotels.

The Legislature’s government oversight committee wants Violette and other turnpike authority executives and board members to appear at a hearing April 15.

The Legislature’s Transportation Commission later this session will consider a bill that would create a commission to study making changes to the organizational structure of the turnpike authority, such as merging it with the Department of Transportation.

At issue is funding.

The turnpike authority maintains its 109 miles of highway with about $100 million in annual toll revenues.

The Department of Transportation maintains 8,500 miles of roads with less than $500 million annually and is chronically underfunded. Nearly all of its income comes from federal and state fuel taxes.

While LePage has talked often about the possibility of merging the two agencies, he seemed supportive of the authority on Friday when he met with its board.

In the short run, he told the board, merging the turnpike authority with the Department of Transportation would help the state. In the long run, however, the authority has “major value” to the state as an economic development tool.

LePage said, for example, that the turnpike authority could build a toll road to connect the turnpike with Sanford, opening up development there. In addition, he said a toll road could fund an east-west highway in northern Maine.

The Department of Transportation is starting a comprehensive transportation study for central York County. The study, which will be completed in July 2012, will look at the possibility of building a highway spur to Sanford.

The turnpike and the state are currently studying the idea of building a toll road to Gorham.

David Bernhardt, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, said that LePage on Friday made it clear to turnpike officials that he wants to work with them.

“He’s giving them a chance,” he said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: [email protected]