AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage says he supports the need to raise tolls on the Maine Turnpike, and that poor management decisions in the past are requiring increases that could have been avoided or reduced.

“What’s happening is that we have to pay the bonds and there is not the money,” he said in an interview. “There are good reasons why Paul Violette is gone and we put in Peter Mills to run the turnpike.”

Violette was executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority for 23 years before resigning last year as his management came under increasing scrutiny. Violette pleaded guilty in February to a charge of felony theft for unauthorized use of turnpike gift cards and using turnpike authority credit cards for personal travel, meals and other expenses. It totaled about $430,000 and Violette is serving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence.

LePage said Mills is “the right person in there running things now.”

He said the bonds issued by the turnpike authority, and paid for by tolls, are structured in such a way that if tolls are not increased sufficiently to pay them, the bond holders can step in and take over the turnpike to assure tolls are increased.

Asked whether tolls should be increased, LePage said, “We don’t have a choice.”

Even so, residents have uniformly criticized the proposed toll increases at public forums turnpike officials have hosted in recent days. They’ve implored officials to find alternatives other than planned increases to generate an additional $26 million in revenue.

An option favored by turnpike officials would add $1 to the toll plaza in York, 75 cents in New Gloucester and West Gardiner and 50 cents each at the Wells northbound and Gray southbound tolls. The rate for EZ-Pass users would increase by 20 percent, from 6.7 cents to 8 cents per mile.

Mills said he hopes the authority will decide on a toll structure at its board of trustees meeting on July 19. Any increases are expected to take effect by November.

LePage said he believes the size of the toll increase could have been reduced or eliminated if the agency had been properly managed under Violette’s tenure.

“But I think that, short of the state coming up with the money, (raising tolls is) the only way,” he said.

Mills has said that the need for more revenue is to pay off millions in debt to pay for 30 miles of highway south of Portland that was widened, a project approved by voters in 1997.

Mills is not sure if the need for an increase could have been eliminated, but said it might have been reduced if the MTA had reduced operational costs more aggressively years ago.

“You can’t get around the cost of what amounts to rebuilding a six-lane highway and it has to be paid for,” he said. Mills said he had not done an analysis of what might have been done to reduce costs in the past because he is focused on cutting costs now.

“We lose about 20 positions a year through attrition and we just announced eliminating 20 positions,” he said. “We are cutting costs.”

The authority is responsible for management of more than 100 miles of interstate from Kittery to Augusta. The agency employs about 450 full and part-time employees and collects approximately $103 million in tolls every year. It is overseen by a seven-member board whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature.

Mills said the turnpike authority is seeking concessions from its union members to further reduce the operational costs. The union, however, says the authority is not bargaining in good faith as required by law.

“As to the toll increases we have proposed, we are listening to the presentations,” he said. Mills added that he is “looking at supporting some changes and I will probably look at more before we are done.”

Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, a member of the Transportation Committee and a critic of the proposed toll increase, said he is not disputing the need for a toll hike, but doesn’t like the way it is structured.

Carey said the authority staff proposal would have those that live in the Lewiston-Auburn area pay three times the amount to drive the same distance as some other users of the toll road.

“What we want is to be treated fairly,” he said.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.