By Mannix Porterfield
A House-led attempt to erase tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike in seven years, once all the bond debt is satisfied, ran out of gas Monday in the Senate.
After studying HB3163 during the weekend, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bob Beach elected to let the measure die in his committee.
Instead, Beach plans to offer a resolution today seeking a year-long study of the toll structure during the interims session.
“The timing is just a little off,” Beach, D-Monongalia, said of the House bill that cleared on a 97-1 vote.
“I respect the efforts of the House to address the issue but I think it’s just a little ahead of the curve. I’m going to allow that bill to just fade away. We’ll talk about it over the summer months.”
With the gavels falling Saturday night, the bill is now in the Legislature’s morgue. Even if it had been passed by Beach’s committee, Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, wasn’t like to consider it, given the financial implications.
If toll booths were dismantled in 2020, the senator said, West Virginia would lose a revenue stream of some $90 million annually in tolls.
“You’re creating a liability issue for the state somewhere down the road,” Beach said.
“We’ve spent the last 13 years trying to erase our unfunded liabilites, and I think this is creating a new one.”
Beach said his second major concern is the fate of 31 state troopers assigned to patrol the 88-mile highway stretching from Princeton to Charleston. Just recently, the West Virginia Parkways Authority opened a new detachment base on the Charleston exit of the road.
“The bill doesn’t make any mention as to how we address that issue,” Beach said, adding it only says that Turnpike employees would be able to seek other employment in state government.
Beach feels the Division of Highways could assume the operation of the toll road — another major objective of the House measure.
“I honestly believe they could do that, but there would have to be some changes,” he said.
If tolls cannot be eliminated altogether, he said, perhaps they could be lowered to the level in force before they were increased in 2009.
“That would allow us some money to maintain the Turnpike and keep the state troopers in place,” he said.
“Once our bonds are paid off, that’s really not an issue. That’s where most of the money’s going right now, to pay down that bond obligation.”
The Turnpike still owes some $65 million in outstanding debt and that is targeted for conclusion in 2019.
Another concern of Beach is the fact that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s special blue-ribbon highways panel is looking at all of West Virginia’s needs, with a report due some time this summer.
Quite possibly, he said, Tomblin will call a special session to deal with highway issues “and I think maybe the governor will have something in there as well in regard to the Turnpike.”
Beach said he “absolutely” is sympathetic with southern West Virginia motorists who have fumed over paying tolls since the road was opened in 1954, while no one else living in the state has to shell out to use highways in their areas.
“I know anyone traveling from the far corner of the state all the way up to Charleston, that’s a burden on their pocket,” he said.
“Again, I commend the House in trying to address the issue. I just think it’s a little ahead of time.”
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