A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Turnpike Authority needs to put up or shut down.

The Downeaster, the popular and growing train route between Portland and Boston, may be forced to shut down in 2009 thanks to the spendthrift incompetence of the Maine Turnpike Authority.

As you probably know, Maine's transportation infrastructure is in the middle of a funding crisis. Gas tax revenues can't afford to maintain the existing network of roads and bridges. Gas is over $3 a gallon and independent truckers are in revolt. What little transit options we have are being paid for through the straining general fund (which faces a $100 million shortfall this year) and through municipal property taxes (which are already too high for most towns to bear).

And yet, in the midst of all these hardships, the Turnpike Authority is spending our money like it's going out of style: they're blasting away a rocky hilltop in Portland to build an expensive new headquarters office building (with acres of socialized parking), they're building palatial new food-court rest stops throughout the state, and they're planning to raise tolls to spend over $150 million (that's half again as much as the entire state's budget shortfall) to widen just 9 miles of the road west of Portland.

The money required for that last project - adding one lane in each direction between Scarborough and Falmouth - could pay for about two decades of Downeaster service.

Incidentally, a lot of people think that the Turnpike Authority's filthy lucre should pay for rail transit. After all, the train follows the same Portland-to-Boston path as the Turnpike, and on peak summer weekends, when tourists are sweltering in their cars behind toll-plaza traffic jams, the train does the Turnpike an invaluable service by taking traffic off the road and giving travelers a separate, faster option.

The train also pollutes less (the Turnpike produces more air pollution than all of Maine's power plants combined), its tracks costs less to maintain, and its rails could carry as many people as sixteen lanes of pavement. By any measure, if the Turnpike Authority is actually interested in moving people and freight, the railroad would provide the best bang for their buck.

Unfortunately, the Turnpike Authority refuses to share their toll revenue with anyone outside the sand and gravel industries. The legislature has been meeting over the past year to try to determine how to pay for the Downeaster's current budget shortfall. But in these meetings, Turnpike goons have threatened any lawmakers who have dared consider using their toll revenues to pay for anything other than pavement.

But more and more people are coming to the conclusion that the Turnpike isn't as interested in moving people and freight as it is in preserving its high-pay, low-work bureaucracy and in securing lucrative construction contracts for its cronies. As roads, bridges, and transit in other parts of the state continue to deteriorate, it's going to be awfully hard for Legislators to continue to entrust such a large portion of public funds as the Turnpike's toll revenues to the backwards bureaucracy that runs the Authority.

But perhaps those bureaucrats are just misunderstood. Maybe they're getting ready to ask the Legislature to allocate a healthy percentage of Turnpike revenue to pay for the Downeaster and other regional transit services in the Turnpike's corridor. That certainly would prove what good public servants they really are. How about it, guys - give us some hard evidence.

No comments: