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

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Highway to Irrelevance: The Decline and Fall of the Maine Turnpike Authority, Part 1

Gas is over $4 a gallon and rising, greenhouse gas regulations are imminent, truck companies are losing market share to trains and ships, and Americans are clamoring to leave the suburbs and get better transit.

These are fascinating times, with revolutionary changes in how we get around just starting to happen. Ridership on the Downeaster train was up another 37% last month. Portland is about to implement a visionary new transit plan. While gas prices crimp households' disposable incomes, Americans and our economy as a whole are desperate for ways to drive less.

And in the middle of these revolutionary changes, one of Maine's biggest transportation bureaucracies, the Maine Turnpike Authority, is working hard to... build a new $40 million toll plaza?! Are you shitting me, MTA? This is the most pressing work you dopes need to be doing right now?

It's more outrageous than fiction, but the Turnpike Authority is moving ahead with plans to replace a good-enough existing toll plaza with a supersized, $40 million facility. $40 million for a McMansion toll booth.

The same amount of money could pay the capital costs of expanding Amtrak service from Portland to Lewiston. Wouldn't that be nice? Tough shit, you're getting a tollbooth instead.

I know I'm not the only one to be slapping my forehead at the MTA's idiocy right now. Today's Portland Press Herald features two letters to the editor from disgruntled neighbors of the proposed Taj Mahal Toll Plaza:

"The conceptual design of the proposed York tollbooth is larger than the toll barriers on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the lighting at the new location would be brighter than three Wal-Mart Supercenters. Does spending $40 million to supersize the York toll plaza make sense when the annual revenue would be virtually unchanged? ...

"Everyone who uses the tollbooths in Maine would pay for this new plaza with increases in tolls. To fix the problems at the current site does not warrant a $40 million, state-of-the-art New Jersey tollbooth in Maine. Wouldn't that money be better spent on roads and bridges in the rest of the state?"
Unless you work at the MTA, the answer to this rhetorical question is obvious.

Compared to the Maine Turnpike Authority, even Exxon Mobil looks like a radical Earth-First collective. At least they're acknowledging the fact that things are changing (see billboard).

Here's my prediction: gas prices will continue to go up, Turnpike traffic will continue to decline, Mainers will continue to clamor for more affordable transportation choices, and the MTA will continue to waste the public's time and money with idiotic engineering wet-dreams like this one, instead of real transit-based solutions.

As this goes on, more and more people will realize that the MTA is doing nothing to solve Maine's transportation crisis: in fact, that they're a big part of the problem. And they have to go.

I give the MTA two to three more years of existence, tops, before the state Legislature consigns them to the dustbin of bureaucracies lost. Hopefully it will be sooner. In a new feature here at the Rights of Way blog, I'll be tracking the Decline and Fall of the MTA right here... stay tuned for many (but not that many) future chronicles.

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