Over the last week I have heard people refer to the organization as both a cash cow and a golden goose.

I’ve been told state taxpayers would have to assume $450 million in debt to disband it.

And it would take an additional dime of gas tax to replace the revenue, and it is our one opportunity to tap out-of-staters for infrastructure investments.

Good arguments all. But the Maine Turnpike Authority still needs to go.

I will preface my analysis by saying I’m impressed by and grateful for the new leadership at the Maine Turnpike Authority. Executive Director Peter Mills and board members like Bob Stone of Androscoggin County are setting priorities and reducing their operating budgets – an astounding 10.4 percent for the upcoming year.

Even the rate hike process, a requirement to maintain adherence to debt covenants finalized last week, was well managed. Detailed information was provided to the public, and stakeholders had a chance to provide input that led to some meaningful changes in the toll adjustments.

The exceptional leadership now in place at the authority, however, cannot change the underlying regional and commercial inequity of the system, the costs of maintaining yet another quasi-public organization and the temptation that will always exist to tap toll revenue for other infrastructure priorities.

The cost of citizenship and commerce varies significantly across Maine depending on free or tolled interstate access. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Lewiston-Auburn, the urban center with the least accessible and most expensive interstate access in Maine.

The round-trip, cash price of a daily commute between Lewiston and Portland will soon be $5.50. And not a penny of the 60 cents of gas tax paid on the two-gallon trip will be used to maintain the turnpike.

That should not be the case. At least not since 1981 when the original construction bonds were repaid and the Legislature rejected a proposal to take control of the 109 miles of toll highway. The concern at the time, as it is today, was that converting the toll highway to free-access interstate would require an increase in the gas tax and limit our ability to extract revenue from tourists.

Fair concerns to be sure, but taxes, to the extent possible, should be equitable and transparent. If there is still a need to game out-of-state travelers, Maine could maintain a short, high-priced toll highway starting at the York plaza.

The Maine Turnpike Authority is becoming a leaner organization under its new leadership to be sure. But no matter how well run, an existing authority will always cost more to maintain than no authority. The Maine Department of Transportation can assume the costs of operating and maintaining the 109 miles of highway without the need for a redundant bureaucracy.

Since 1982 the Maine Turnpike has been required to contribute varying funds to the Maine Department of Transportation. The turnpike reform bill enacted in 2011 following the investigation by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability defines these contributions.

Every year 5 percent of the turnpike’s gross revenues must be devoted to “department projects” that can include park-and-ride lots, corridor studies, Zoom buses, commuter vans, and the rebuilding of the Piscataquis River bridges between Maine and New Hampshire.

It strikes me that this spending, referred to as “outside mission” in the turnpike authority’s 2011 Annual Report, would be particularly troubling to commuter and transportation-dependent businesses along the toll highway corridor.

Pragmatically, it is tough to see how the turnpike authority can be dissolved given the $450 million in outstanding indebtedness, the $100 million in annual toll revenue, and the plateau payments due on the widening through 2018.

But 2018 also happens to be the final year of Gov. LePage’s second term in office. Could the timing be a coincidence that leads to a bold and final act of a retiring governor from Lewiston? Or is it wishful thinking on both counts?

Time will tell. Until then, I’m investing in an E-ZPass.

Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @demerittdan