The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 5, 2013

Turnpike, DOH officials say it would be unwise to remove tolls

Road, now self-supporting, would rob cash from others

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Turnpike directors Thursday alternately blasted as “absurd” and “shameful” the House of Delegates call to shut down toll booths and turn the road over to the financially-strapped Division of Highways in seven years.

Before the monthly meeting, Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox voiced doubts that such a transfer would be practical.

“Anything’s possible, if you have to do it,” he said. “We prefer not to.

“The Turnpike is paying for itself. It’s money we can use elsewhere on the Interstate highway system.”

If the DOH is compelled to absorb the Turnpike, he said, this would mean a drain on an already diminished budget.

“Our current revenue sources are not keeping up with inflation,” Mattox said.

“We’re losing ground every year.”

Equally faulted by the West Virginia Parkways Authority members was the speed with which HB3163 was shipped to the floor by the finance committee.

Turnpike Manager Greg Barr said he wasn’t asked to share any pertinent figures when the House Finance Committee originated the bill last Friday.

“The rush to judgment on this bill still bothers me,” he said.

Board member Doug Epling likewise rebuked the finance committee’s handling of the bill.

“You saw back room politics at its best in West Virginia, and our delegation, southern people, helped promote it,” he said.

“I’m very disappointed in that. I think it was shameful.”

Point by point, Barr picked apart the rewrite of an original bill offered early on by Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, proposing to effect the transfer in 2020, or one year after the outstanding $65 million in bond indebtedness is satisfied.

Barr called the movement in the House “a runaway train that is throwing out numbers and ideas that have no real foundation in the true costs it will bring to the state.”

Under the bill, tolls would be collected for 13 1/2 months after the bonds are paid off, with 75 percent put into a trust fund, Barr said, explaining that of the $90 million taken in, $70 million would be dedicated to a future fund while $20 million would go for the road’s operation.

“It’s impossible,” the manager said.

By the end of the first year, he said, the road would be $40 million short of what is needed, leaving only $40 million in the trust fund to cover the road for 15 years.

Gearheart has stated the 88-mile highway can be maintained for $6 million to $7 million annually.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s $59 million a year, so at the end of the second year, you’d be short almost $90 million,” Barr said.

Advocates of removing tolls insist that the Turnpike is spending 20 times more than what the DOH would spend, Barr noted, but when you divide the $20 million they peg as maintenance expenditures by 2035, that comes to approximately $1 million annually.

“There is no way, as we all know, in the world to maintain that Turnpike for $1 million a year,” the manager said.

“Salt is $2 million, just to heat the road and clean it in the winter. It’s somewhat even absurd to even suggest that could even be done.”

Barr said bill supporters don’t understand that some upkeep doesn’t fall into maintenance but is considered assets — painting bridges, for example — and this is a $34 million expense.

What’s more, he noted, about three-fourths of the annual toll income — some $70 million — comes from the pockets of out-of-state residents.

As for another argument advanced by the supporters, Barr wondered just how displaced workers will find jobs elsewhere in state government. Specifically, he asked, how can the DOH take in 125 maintenance people?

“Or how will the Department of Public Safety absorb 31 state troopers?” Barr said. “Where’s the money?”

If the tolls are abandoned, he said, taxpayers across the state are going to see negative results.

“If the DOH has to start managing the Turnpike, there’s less they’re going to be able to do in Ohio County, Jefferson County, Cabell County, and all the other areas of the state,” Barr added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com