The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 26, 2013

Turnpike’s roads rating continues to improve

Increased tolls mean more revenue, but E-ZPass discounts are taking a bite

BECKLEY — Four years ago, before the tolls were increased for the first time since 1981, only 40 percent of the West Virginia Turnpike was considered in “good to very good” shape.

Now that millions more dollars flow through the toll plazas, the 88-mile toll highway can boast a rating of 70 percent in “good to very good” shape, the West Virginia Parkways Authority learned Thursday.

Consulting engineer Randy Epperly told the board’s committees at a meeting at Tamarack that by 2019, the Princeton-to-Charleston road, given some $20 million annually for a facelift, will be even better.

“We’ll reach that goal of 80 percent of good or very good,” he said.

Turnpike Manager Greg Barr agreed with that assessment, pointing out the authority is involved in a lot of paving and other restoration.

“We’re making a lot of headway,” he said, noting that a mill and inlay cycle will have commenced by 2019, one that will run up an annual bill of nearly $13 million.

“That will take care of the paving, keep it smooth.”

The year 2019 is pivotal, since the remaining outstanding bonds are to be satisfied by then, and it also is critical since the Legislature could exercise the option of ending the tolls.

A major proposal to do just that and turn the Turnpike over to the Division of Highways cleared the House of Delegates with one dissenting vote this year, but was never put on a committee agenda in the Senate.

“By 2019, all of our bridges will be over 40 years old, just like the rest of the country,” Barr said. “Two will be 60 years old.

“There are going to be needs for bridge deck replacements, latex modified concrete overlays, and a lot more paint, as that steel and concrete ages.”

Meantime, the board’s financial director, Parrish French, told the committees that he is preparing a new budget for the July 1 start of the fiscal year that anticipates a $559,000 decrease, or .7 of one percent, because of the higher use of E-ZPass transponders.

Afterward, Barr said the entire loss cannot be attributed to E-ZPass, since a decline in travelers also must be considered.

Yet, the passes that allow discounts to both cars and trucks are prompting a decline in revenues.

“It has an impact of drawing down revenues as people convert to it,” the manager said.

Seventy percent of all commercial trucks are equipped with the transponders and overall, about 35 percent of motorists use them. All told, 40 percent of the Turnpike’s revenues is derived from E-ZPass.

“That’s why in the winter time, the penetration for E-ZPass is greater, because cars aren’t traveling but truckers are,” he said.

“In the summer, the penetration rate drops down to 20 percent and it’s all these cars and many don’t have E-ZPass. It is a little impact, but it’s not major.”

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