YORK — There are significant problems, deep-rooted and long-ignored, at the Maine Turnpike Authority.

As coverage in The Portland Press Herald and other media has shown, the agency has been operating with arrogance and without proper scrutiny for too long.

While it’s true that overall the agency and its toll road have been well-managed, the agency charged with one of Maine’s most important economic tools — and the backbone of our economy — got complacent and comfortable, and top managers made poor decisions that they are now being held accountable for.

Last year, as members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, state Sen. David Trahan and I championed a comprehensive review of the turnpike’s practices and our committee directed the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to perform an audit.

That audit set the stage for the events that have unfolded this year, including the resignation of MTA Executive Director Paul Violette and the spectacle of the Government Oversight Committee’s hearing last week.

This review is long overdue, and I am proud of the role that our nonpartisan committee played in holding the turnpike accountable for past actions and beginning an era of increased transparency and cooperation.

Unfortunately, in the process, innocent men and women have been hurt.

As The Press Herald reported April 14, toll collectors employed by the MTA have received unjust — and sometimes cruel — treatment at the hands of people paying tolls.

We understand the public’s anger at the agency and its past practices. It was the turnpike’s treatment of residents in York County during its efforts to build a new toll plaza that first started the inquiry into their activities.

The turnpike’s leaders were non-responsive and acted as if they were above answering legitimate questions. Now those chickens have come home to roost.

But the men and women who collect tolls, the maintenance crews who keep our turnpike operating and the countless other men and women on the front lines of the agency aren’t to blame for what’s been going on.

I travel the turnpike often and have had an opportunity to see the work these men and women do up close and nearly every day.

They are dedicated public servants performing an important and sometimes difficult job, even when the whiff of political scandal isn’t prompting their customers to throw coins at them.

Along with Sen. Trahan, I have spoken to former state Sen. Peter Mills, who as interim executive director of the turnpike is looking to change the culture of the agency. And we believe that he agrees that the front-line workers are not the problem.

When visitors come into Maine, often the first person they meet works for the turnpike. Over the years, frequent visitors and Mainers alike develop relationships and folks begin to recognize each other.

Those men and women are Maine’s ambassadors. As part of the reforms that are coming to the turnpike, there should be increased attention paid to those hard-working individuals. They should be trained — and supported — in how to deal with difficult customers.

But it should go beyond that. They also should receive appropriate customer service training so they can be as helpful as possible to travelers on the turnpike.

When we drive home into Maine, we look forward to that friendly greeting and warm smile, and we think most people do, too.

The problems at the turnpike are real, and reform is necessary.

Because of the work we started last year and the continued efforts of Sen. Roger Katz, Rep. David Burns and the members of the Government Oversight Committee, we know that things are going to change.

Unlike other committees in the Legislature, the Government Oversight Committee has the same number of Democrats and Republicans. The reason is simple: Good government, accountability and transparency transcend party politics.

That bipartisan dedication to finding the truth has carried forward from our committee last year and continues with this new Legislature.

As we learn more and more about what has happened over the years, we expect that there will be many tough questions that must be answered.But the workers on the highway don’t deserve the rebuke that they have faced.

They go to work, they play by the rules, and they do their jobs. They shouldn’t be blamed for the conduct of the bigwigs who apparently didn’t do the same.

 

– Special to The Press Herald