The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 7, 2012

Turnpike tolls controversy flares anew

Disputed tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike cannot be removed for several years, but one member of its governing board wants to make sure the 88-mile highway has an “advocate” on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s special blue-ribbon panel looking at road needs across the state.

Tomblin’s committee isn’t likely to have its omnibus report ready for perusal until spring, but Bill Seaver put in a strong plug Tuesday for a pro-tolls voice on that panel.

“They take the tolls off, it’s going to be a huge tragedy for this state,” Seaver told fellow West Virginia Parkways Authority members, via a speaker telephone from Mercer County.

“We need to start taking the other side of the argument. Right now, we’re just taking a beating every time you turn around by all the Republicans in this county, the newspaper in this county. Everywhere. We have got to start making people understand how vital these tolls are.”

That led board member Cameron Lewis to quip, “One of the alternatives is to put Mercer County into Virginia. That takes care of that.”

But Seaver definitely wasn’t kidding, saying at one point, “I just want to make sure we’re not going to get backdoored on this deal and roll around 2019 and pull this thing off.”

If tolls are stricken, he warned, the state would be squandering money poured into the Turnpike.

Asked by Lewis to explain that, he said all the improvements such as the new $6 million toll collection system would be wasted.

“It’s just important to me that we get these talking points and we put some of them forward about the good that this toll road does this state and we’re able to maintain it in a way that the state road cannot do,” Seaver said.

“I wish they could. I wish they had the resources we had to maintain the balance of the roads in West Virginia.”

One of the Republicans in Seaver’s home county — Delegate Marty Gearheart — happened to be at the meeting, held at the Beckley maintenance center, and responded afterward to the label of a “backdoor” approach in striking tolls.

“I’ve been extremely public with regard to my point of view in legislation we’ve put forward,” Gearheart said.

“It won’t be anything that anybody has to guess at. It will be out there for folks to look at and be critical of and debate and deal with.”

The authority raised tolls three years ago for the first time since 1981, but only after a series of public meetings amid a flurry of sparks in the Legislature, led by southern West Virginia lawmakers on both sides of the aisle opposed to the increase.

Since the increase became effective, the Turnpike has engaged in facelifts along crumbling portions of the Princeton-to-Charleston highway. Tolls could be taken down in 2019, once the outstanding bonds are satisfied, but this decision is in the hands of West Virginia lawmakers.

Seaver’s pitch came after another board member, Victor Grigoraci, asked Paul Mattox to update the authority on the progress of the blue-ribbon committee.

Mattox explained the main committee has been split into three specific study groups — infrastructure, revenue and public outreach.

Once the research is concluded by the first two, the public subcommittee will conduct a series of meetings across the state to gather citizen input.

“There is no timeline,” he told Grigoraci.

“It’s a huge project. There is a lot of education required with the committee members to bring them up to speed.”

Mattox told Seaver he believes the Turnpike will be embraced by the study groups.

Gearheart said he understands that the bond obligation must be met within a few years but once the debt is paid, the tolls could be dismantled.

“At that point in time, I think a tax put in place for construction of a highway, not maintenance of a highway — that tax was put in place to build a highway — needs to be removed,” the delegate said.

“I also don’t think any other highway in the state of West Virginia will ever be tolled until the state of West Virginia can prove that they can remove a toll once its intended purpose is accomplished.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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