The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 3, 2013

Toll bill may be premature

‘Blue ribbon commission report’ on road needs not due until summer

CHARLESTON — Long-running frustration shared by southern lawmakers over tolls imposed on the West Virginia Turnpike comes to a head today in the House of Delegates.

Up for passage is a bill aimed at shifting control of the 88-mile road from the West Virginia Parkways Authority into the hands of the Division of Highways.

Even if the House passes HB3163, and the Senate concurs, the attempt to dismantle toll booths by 2020 could be an exercise in futility.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin suggested as much Tuesday, when asked if he would sign such legislation.

“It’s a piece of legislation we would have to look at,” Tomblin told The Register-Herald.

“But the bill may be premature, given the blue ribbon commission report isn’t due until the summer.”

Tomblin referred to a special panel that has been scrutinizing West Virginia’s road needs quietly for several months. And that commission isn’t expected to unwrap its findings for some time, long after this legislative session ends April 13.

The authority jacked up the tolls in 2009, marking the first increase since 1981, and since then, southern lawmakers have been seeking ways to have them ended.

Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, got the ball rolling early on in this session, and a bill exiting the House Finance Committee is a rework of his effort.

The idea is to create pools of money that taps into dollars the authority has accumulated, and proceeds from rest stops on the Princeton-to-Charleston toll road.

Tolls would halt in 2020, once all of the outstanding bonds are retired in 2019.

Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox has said the blue ribbon panel has been divided into three specific realms of research — infrastructure, revenue and public outreach.

After the first two groups conclude their work, Mattox said the third one will seek citizen input in a series of meetings across the state.

“It’s a huge project,” Mattox said at an authority meeting in December.

“There is a lot of education required with the committee members to bring them up to speed.”

Gearheart’s bill basically is meant to prevent the authority from borrowing any money that is secured by tolls.

The authority would stay in existence, since it might be needed to deal with similar projects in the state.

Opened in 1954 as a two-lane highway, the Turnpike was expanded to a four-lane road meeting Interstate standards.

Gearheart says his bill allows for Turnpike employees to find employment elsewhere in state government and provides ample money for the road’s upkeep.

About $23 million is set aside for the road’s maintenance annually, and Gearheart maintains this is about 20 times as much as the DOH spends on the same mileage of its 36,000-mile obligation.

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