Gotta Go? Don't Forget Your Voucher
The Maine Turnpike’s new rest area in West Gardiner has all the usual amenities for travelers: food, beverages, crafts, artwork and – getouttamywayIgottago – restrooms.
One problem. To use the facilities, drivers have to exit the highway. That means that after relieving themselves, they’re required to go through a toll booth to continue their trips on the pike.
Eventually, there’ll be a vending machine that will dispense the certificates, although it’s not clear how a mechanical device will prevent those who are insufficiently grateful for access to indoor plumbing, not to mention the opportunity to purchase overpriced coffee and artery-clogging burgers, from obtaining as many of the get-on-the-highway-free cards as they like.
They do make great stocking stuffers. Or so I’m told.
They also could make for budget problems for the pike. And the toll road already has enough of those. A sharp drop in driving this past summer and a spike in the cost of road maintenance has the turnpike’s overseers planning to increase the amount most people will pay to use the highway, beginning in February.
The average toll will jump by about 30 percent, although E-Z Pass users will actually see some reductions. That’s not the case for those paying cash at the Gardiner toll booth. To travel the seven miles to Augusta, they’ll be charged a buck, which is a 67 percent increase from the current 60-cent entry fee.
Hey, somebody’s got to cover the cost of those free vouchers for the urinarilly challenged.
You may have gotten ripped off at the toll booth, but you’re unlikely to undergo highway robbery in Bangor. Washington-based CQ Press has rated that city and the surrounding communities as the eighth-safest metropolitan area in the country, out of more than 300 cities surveyed.
Greater Portland came in 28th on the list, while Lewiston-Auburn was 60th.
The Bangor ranking doesn’t necessarily indicate everybody there is scrupulous about obeying every law on the books. At the Temple for Advanced Enlightenment, currently housed in a small apartment, worshippers smoke marijuana as part of their services.
They say pot provides spiritual guidance, sort of like a GPS for the soul, except that it gives you the munchies and you have to keep stopping at spiritual rest areas for metaphysical snacks.
I hope they have vouchers.
Speaking of driving while impaired, Maine gets low ratings from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for its weak laws regulating convicted offenders.
The state ended up ranked 42nd in the country for not having a mandatory ignition-interlock-device statute, requiring those found guilty of operating under the influence to install gizmos that prevent their cars from starting if they’ve been imbibing. MADD also downgraded Maine for failing to deal with its high number of repeat offenders. The state currently has nearly 22,000 licensed drivers with three or more convictions, almost 3,900 with five or more and over 50 with 10+ guilty verdicts.
Even so, the number of highway fatalities in Maine is down 17 percent through the first 11 months of the year over the same period in 2007.
There were 140 fatal accidents in the state through November, down from 164 at the that time last year. About a third of the 2007 deaths were alcohol-related.
The safer roads probably weren’t caused by an increase in safer drivers. They appear to have been the result of fewer drivers. According to the Federal Highway Administration, Mainers drove 7.5 percent fewer miles in September than the same month in the previous year.
The state ranked third in the nation for the decrease in driving. Much to the chagrin of the Maine Turnpike.
Unfortunately, driving wasn’t the only thing that dropped. The Maine Association of Realtors reported that sales of existing homes declined 14 percent in October, compared with ’07, and prices took a hit to the tune of 9.3 percent.
Only 841 permits were issued through mid-November in 38 municipalities from Lewiston to Kittery, compared to 1,293 last year. In 2000, over 2,300 permits were taken out.
Maybe the housing industry needs a voucher program like the one the turnpike has. Each certificate would be good for a free bathroom.
Speaking of going in the toilet, the University of Maine football team’s season did just that sort of figurative plunge on Nov. 29, when the Black Bears were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs by the University of Northern Iowa by a score of 40-15.
It was close for the first half. Sorta.
Also bogged down like an undersized long-shot offense facing a title-contending defense of hog- and corn-fed pro prospects is the effort to expand passenger rail service north of Portland. Attempts by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to secure a $35 million federal loan to pay for upgrading rails and building stations have stalled for reasons nobody seems to be able to explain.
Meanwhile, planning for passenger facilities in Brunswick and Freeport is proceeding. I’m assured that if the buildings ever get constructed, there’ll be plenty of restrooms.
No Maine bank is yet circling the drain like those big national financial institutions. But that doesn’t mean many of the state’s banks aren’t interested in federal bailout money. Bar Harbor Bank & Trust has applied for the funds – technically, it’s called the Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP – and as many as half the state’s banks may do so. Financial industry officials say it’s not because the local banks aren’t feeling flush (ha!), but because the additional capital will help boost the state’s economy.
The city of Augusta is attempting to do its bit for economic growth by forming a Branding Committee. When I first heard of this idea, I had visions of every resident of the state’s capital being forced to line up and drop their pants, whereupon red-hot iron bearing the message “Use Your Turnpike Vouchers to Visit Augusta” would be applied to civic-spirited buttocks.
It turns out I was mistaken. What municipal leaders mean by branding is coming up with some kind of theme that exemplifies all that is good about their city. My suggestion: “Augusta: Clean Restrooms. No Tolls.”
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.