By Bill Seaver
After reading a turnpike article in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph April 6 quoting Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, as saying “I’m a salesman and I’ve been told I have a little time. I plan to use that time,” many things became clear to me.
Sunday morning I read the editorial in the Telegraph and I knew I had to send this letter. The truth about this matter must be told and the people of southern West Virginia need to hear the other side.
Delegate Gearheart is a wonderful salesman. He sold his bill of goods to his fellow political candidates and allies, who in turn sold the idea to the editor of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph and, in turn, the people in southern West Virginia, that they were being discriminated against, oppressed, double taxed and mistreated in every way by the tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike and they were going to lead the charge on getting rid of these tolls once and for all, no matter what the cost to the state.
This salesmanship finally exposed the fallacy of their argument. The Finance Committee could not put Delegate Gearheart’s bill on the floor because fiscal notes were attached and the other delegates would immediately see it would be impossible to remove tolls because of fiscal note rebuttal by the affected.
Instead, because of his sales ability, Delegate Gearheart and his cohorts convinced the leadership and other members of the Finance Committee to tweak the already flawed math on his bill and submit it to the House floor as a bill originating in the Finance Committee with no fiscal notes.
When this bill came to the floor, I was listening to the audio on my computer. The salesmanship kicked in. Delegate Gearheart sounded like a tent revival preacher as he assured everyone that his Finance Committee-tweaked plan met all financial concerns and that all the good people working for the turnpike would be able to easily get other state jobs, or at least had seven years to make other arrangements.
He promised there would be adequate funding to operate the turnpike until 2035. This was followed by orchestrated speeches from most of the southern delegates supporting the bill. These are the people I am most disappointed in because I know they were aware of the fiscal notes attached to the original bill and chose to ignore them. They stood on the House floor and endorsed cutting approximately 400 jobs of people they are supposed to represent and placing their families and the communities they live in at risk. They put the transportation infrastructure of our state at risk and could not have cared less about the burden they tried to place on the Division of Highways.
Just as important to me is the fact they jeopardized a valuable asset of our state that can be used to repay the people of southern West Virginia for the years they have been paying for this road and the sacrifices they endured.
The plan I will send the governor and ask him to consider, after he reviews the findings of the Highways Blue Ribbon Commission, I call a common sense approach for future turnpike tolls. I would request that he put forth legislation authorizing the Parkways Authority to give Kanawha, Fayette, Raleigh and Mercer counties $75,000 each for the next six years until the bonds are paid.
These monies would be used by each county for infrastructure needs and to reimburse school systems for toll expense and to work with veteran centers and senior centers for E-Z Pass access for those needing the turnpike for medical appointments or hospitalization. After the bonds are paid off, I would request he increase the annual amount for each of these counties to $250,000 for the same purpose and to further create and enhance economic development.
I would also request, following the payoff of bonds, the establishment of the Southern West Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Fund where excess turnpike tolls after operating expenses could be placed. I estimate the annual amount to be in the $20 million range.
These funds would be used for road care and improvements in southern West Virginia from a point approximately 5 miles north of the turnpike above Charleston to the East River Tunnel on the Virginia border approximately 5 miles south of the turnpike in Princeton. This fund would be under the jurisdiction of the West Virginia Division of Highways. I would also request a stipend to the other most affected counties, McDowell, Wyoming, Monroe and Summers, to allow them to reimburse their school systems and assist veterans and seniors.
I believe this is a plan that goes a long way toward repaying the citizens of southern West Virginia for their many years of sacrifice. It is a plan that ensures the jobs of our turnpike employees and hopefully creates more jobs in every county. This plan also provides tremendous relief for many of the financial challenges faced by the Division of Highways and certainly helps ensure the stability of our transportation infrastructure.
— Seaver is a member of theWest Virginia Parkways Authority