By Mannix Porterfield
A southern West Virginia legislator says the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways is “a colossal failure” and is calling on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to keep a 2-year-old promise to let turnpike tolls fade into history in the designated cutoff year of 2019.
Delegate Marty Gearheart says the commission’s call for raising the bonding power of the West Virginia Parkways Authority to issue some $1.1 billion in new bonds for road needs is in conflict with its claim that no tax increases are being recommended.
In a tentative recommendation, the commission wants to not only maintain tolls but incrementally raise them, tied to inflation, while allowing West Virginians using E-ZPass a five-year freeze before those costs go up.
“This proposal, while purported to raise money while not raising taxes, does exactly the opposite,” Gearheart, R-Mercer, told The Register-Herald.
“The citizens of southern West Virginia will not only pay an additional billion dollars in taxes/tolls but under this proposal, they will pay it with interest. The billion dollars raised will be spent at the will and pleasure of those determining highway needs with no expectations that any of it will be spent on the turnpike or even in southern West Virginia.”
But Jason Pizatella, the commission chairman and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s deputy chief of staff, told the Parkways Authority in Thursday’s monthly meeting at Tamarack that the plan calls for 25 percent of the money generated by the bond issue to be spent in the four counties touching the Turnpike.
That shakes out to some $250 million for Mercer, Fayette, Raleigh and Kanawha counties.
Moreover, Pizatella and Turnpike Manager Greg Barr pointed out that 76 percent of tolls collected on the 88-mile highway are paid by out-of-state residents.
Gearheart reminded Tomblin of a May 8, 2011, interview with the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, when he remarked, “As far as I’m concerned, when 2019 comes, if that is the magic date, the tolls should come off.”
Whatever the commission recommends in its final draft, which won’t come until its last meeting, set for Sept. 19, Tomblin would have to approve it before he seeks any action from the Legislature.
If tolls are to remain, the Legislature would have to give its consent, along with a possible raising of the bond limit in effect for the Parkways Authority.
Acknowledging the commission has one meeting left, Gearheart said, “It is not too early to deem it a colossal failure.”
“What was billed as a gathering of the best and brightest minds in our state to determine needs, efficiencies and innovative means of paying for any potential additional needs in our highway system has failed in its advertised mission and appears to be a thinly veiled mechanism to heap additional costs on the backs of West Virginians in the name of a contrived crisis,” the delegate said.
Gearheart questioned why Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox, who suggested ways of saving money and has touted $150 million in savings on various projects, hasn’t turned over any of that money to the general fund.
“One must ask why these savings haven’t been realized before,” he said.
“It is the task of the state agencies to operate efficiently. Why did it take the prompting of the Blue Ribbon Commission for the Division of Highways to spend the taxpayers’ dollars wisely? How long have we been wasting $150 million a year?”
Gearheart has been an outspoken opponent of turnpike tolls and vowed to continue his fight.
“Make no mistake — I will battle every day to avoid this disaster,” he said.
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