The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 8, 2013

Tolls, speed limits topics of debate at meeting

West Virginia Parkways Authority

CHARLESTON — Rather than dismantle toll booths on the West Virginia Turnpike, one member of its board says the time has come to dump a few folks in the House of Delegates.

Specifically, Bill Seaver of Mercer County called for an end to the political careers of southern delegates pushing to abandon the tolls on the 88-mile highway.

“We need to get rid of these people that are pushing this thing,” Seaver declared Thursday at the West Virginia Parkways Authority’s monthly meeting.

“When these folks come up for re-election, I say it’s time for them to go. Let’s get forward-thinking people in here.”

Seaver lauded some state senators, chiefly Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, who authored a bill this week to dedicate one-half of 1 percent of the annual toll take to economic development in the four border counties — Kanawha, Raleigh, Fayette and Mercer.

That idea, however, is not only impractical, but an obvious violation of the agreement with the bondholders in the highway’s remaining indebtedness, Manager Greg Barr said.

“I’m not saying it’s been right that we paid those tolls all along,” Seaver said.

“If I had my way, we’d draw a line 8 miles above Charleston to the (old Memorial) tunnel and when the bonds are paid, all that money would be spent down here. It would take a tremendous amount of pressure off the Department of Transportation.”

Seaver said removal of the tolls in 2020, as advocated in a bill by

Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, would be “an absolute disaster” and simply will not occur.

“To think some of this stuff passes through the Legislature, like this, is unbelievable to me,” he said.

Chafin proposed taking one-half of 1 percent of the annual $91 million in revenues collected and giving it to the four counties, appropriating $1 million to each.

Barr said the math doesn’t work, noting that one-half of 1 percent would be less than $1 million, or not even $250,000 for each county.

Gearheart proposed shifting the 144 maintenance workers to the Division of Highways, but Barr said the cost of this alone would be close to $7 million, considering a base salary of $25,000 and a benefits package for a total of $40,000.

If tolls are removed, where does the maintenance money come from, Barr asked.

“The DOH is more strapped for cash than they’ve ever been,” he said, noting it is responsible for 36,000 miles of state road.

“Besides that the toll revenues are pledged to the bonds,” he said.

“If you start appropriating toll revenues, then that creates an impairment of contract with the bondholders.”

Barr told the authority that the construction of the Turnpike in 1954 represented “the biggest economic development investment ever made in southern West Virginia.”

The state put up $250 million and the federal government the balance, and under a tripartite pact between the authority, the U.S. government and Department of Transportation, revenues may only be applied to maintenance and repairs.

“Tolls are fenced pretty tightly,” he said.

“If you do that (divert tolls to counties), you raise the eyebrows of rating agencies. That sends a bad signal to the bond market.”

And if word is spread around Wall Street, he suggested, the state might find it difficult to borrow in the future if such an agreement were violated.

Barr said the Turnpike employs hundreds of people in southern West Virginia and has been a blessing to the development of tourism.

Another issue is an attempt by some southern lawmakers to raise the speed limit between the Mossy and Chelyan interchanges from 60 mph to 70 — a move that flies in the face of safety and traffic analyses that go back to studies performed after the Arab oil embargo led the federal government to drop the acceptable speeds on Interstates to 55, the manager said.

“Not only would it be difficult to make that speed limit of 70 safe, there are 33 curves on the northern part of the road with advisory signs at 55 mph to get people to slow down,” he said.

What is really needed is legislation to beef up enforcement against “core toll evaders,” Barr said, so that the Division of Motor Vehicles could refuse to renew a vehicle registration for those who consistently drive through without paying.

Barr said an effort is under way in other states to reciprocate among DMVs.

“Honest people pay their tolls, yet some scofflaws will just put up their nose to the system and we don’t have a legislative mandate on how to collect that,” he added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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