Maine Turnpike's fight with town of York lands it legislative audit

May 27, 2010

The Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) has been made the number one target of the state's Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability (OPEGA) due to the fight they picked with the town of York over a new toll plaza there.  The audit was initiated by Rep Dawn Hill of York who has become a strong critic of the Turnpike Authority over their refusal to consider alternatives to a wide open road toll (ORT) plus cash plaza at a new site in the area requiring major property takings.

All-electronic tolling (AET) has been suggested by experts hired by the town of York, avoiding the need to acquire large new real estate in a developed stretch of the coast, and saving some tens of millions of dollars.

Hill is a co-chair of the state legislature's Government Oversight Committee and she has been instrumental in having the Turnpike subject to a wide-ranging investigation by the accountability office OPEGA starting last year, but only recently made public.

She is quoted: "There's no oversight of the Turnpike, no one to ask questions why or why not. They have the power to take land by eminent domain without any oversight, they get the best from government and the private sector."

OPEGA has been asked to focus on:

1. Why hasn't MTA been transferring operating surplus to MDOT as required by statute? Does MTA have an operating surplus as defined by 23 MRSA 1964? What other types of financial support has MTA been providing to DOT, if any? To what degree can MTA provide financial support to DOT without driving increases in toll rates?

2. What factors most significantly affect MTA's bond rating? How is the bond rating affected by legislative oversight actions, including OPEGA reviews, or by changes in MTA's operations, governance structure, revenue stream, etc?

3. What specific obligations does MTA have to its bondholders as expressed in the Bond Resolution? Are these typical obligations for an entity that issues revenue bonds?

4. Is the amount of bond debt currently held by MTA reasonable, and has the full amount of that debt been necessary to ensure the Authority could effectively carry out its mission?

5. Are MTA's policies, procedures and processes for selecting contractors and administering contracts adequate to ensure that MTA receives best value for contracted services?

6. What entities have a role in governing and overseeing MTA? What role is each entity supposed to play and how effectively does each entity carry out that role? How does MTA's governance structure (including statutory budgetary approval by the Legislature's Transportation Committee and appointments to the Authority's board by both the Legislature and Governor) compare to that of comparable authorities in other states?

7. What is MTA spending its toll revenue on? How does MTA define reasonable expenditures? Are the Authority's expenditures reasonable?

8. How does MTA compare to toll authorities in other states on financial and performance measures such as personnel and management costs and cost per mile?

York ORT+cash toll plaza plan likely to be returned by Feds

Meanwhile word on the contentious York toll plaza permitting is that the federal regulator is likely to return the Turnpike draft environmental impact statement as "Incomplete" for not listing sufficient options.

This would allude to the option of a transition to all-electronic toll system.

The draft EIS has three similar cash plus open road toll plazas at different sites, all of which require major land acquisition and takings of wetland. The existing York toll plaza site is unsuitable for ORT+cash because it is on a curve and close to an interchange. Swampy conditions also make construction of cash toll booths problematic.

Cost of a new ORT+cash plaza has been estimated to be in the range $35m to $50m. The York plaza is the most important on the Turnpike collecting about 40% of revenues since it spans the mainline in the busy stretch near the New Hampshire border.

Originally a ticket system, most of the other toll points are on ramps.

The Turnpike Authority has been trying to gain acceptance of continued cash collection on the fear that all-electronic will produce major 'leakage' from uncollectible tolls with out-of-state vehicles.

However critics point out that open road tolling (ORT) down the middle as proposed by the Turnpike also makes collecting from out-of-state vehicles a challenge. They say having cash booths on the right side won't help collect from out-of-staters who choose to fly through the ORT lanes without a transponder.

An all-electronic toll (AET) point probably costs around $4m to $5m. Consultant eTrans Group working for the town of York has said there is no way the Turnpike can recover the huge capital costs of building a new mainline plaza for continued cash collection. Under all scenarios it is well ahead financially by transitioning to AET.

Maine pikers at ATI

Maine Turnpike Authority staffers have been participants in the work of the North Carolina based Alliance for Toll Interoperability (ATI) which is actively developing improved toll collection across state lines by license plate images. - sometimes called video tolling.

The Turnpike is therefore well equipped to re-examine its past opposition to AET.

earlier reports of plaza fight:

on eTrans study for Town of York:

Maine Turnpike's documents on the case

on Alliance for Toll Interoperability:

TOLLROADSnews 2010-05-26

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