The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 6, 2013

Turnpike tolls bill not likely to get on Senate agenda

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Senate leaders are eyeing a House measure to end tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike in seven years with a high level of skepticism.

In fact, based on what two of them observed Friday, the bill isn’t likely to reach first base.

And even if HB3163 passes muster with the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, it likely would strike out when it arrives in finance.

“I’ll take a hard look at it this weekend,” Transportation Chairman Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, said.

“If I bring it forward, it’s going to be massaged a little bit. At this point, I’m going to say I’m not inclined to putting it on the agenda.”

Beach and Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, voiced concerns over two problem areas — the loss of $80 million-plus in toll revenues annually, and the inability to pay for 31 troopers now assigned to the 88-mile highway.

“It’s not off the table,” Beach emphasized.

Beach’s approach is to wait on the final report and list of recommendations by a blue-ribbon panel Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed to scrutinize West Virginia’s road needs across the entire state.

That report is due out some time in summer.

“I’m more inclined to wait until the recommendations come out of the blue-ribbon commission before moving on that bill,” the chairman said.

“I’m confident there’ll be something in there in regard to the Turnpike.”

By a 97-1 vote, the House this week approved a revised version of a bill authored early in the session by Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, with bipartisan support.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike from southern counties bordering the Princeton-to-Charleston road spoke in favor of it.

Predictably, the reception was less than enthusiastic in the Senate, generally more conservative and less inclined to erase a revenue stream.

Prezioso wondered how the Division of Highways could absorb operation of the Turnpike — a major goal of the bill — since it already is strapped to care for some 36,000 miles of state roads.

“I don’t see how they can do it,” Prezioso said.

“I certainly feel for the folks down there (southern counties). We’ve got to find a way to help those people with the fee that they pay. I don’t understand all of the passes that they have. We can tweak those to make it more compatible for those folks who live down there.”

If the bill survives Beach’s committee and is sent to his, Prezioso said his staff would break down its contents.

“I look at the financial side, and that concerns me,” he said of the bill.

“There’s a lot of money involved, about $82 million. And we certainly don’t have it in our current budget. Highways doesn’t have it, either, I’m sure.”

The House bill came under fire Thursday by Turnpike Manager Greg Barr and two members of the road’s governing board, the West Virginia Parkways Authority, as unrealistic and based on flawed arithmetic.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com