By Mannix Porterfield
Don’t bet the farm just yet on tolls vanishing from the West Virginia Turnpike six years from now as provided under law.
Not only would they stay in force under a series of recommendations by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s special Blue Ribbon Commission on Highway Needs, but would go up, with any increases tied to inflation, and E-ZPass users could see existing rates static for a mere five years.
The idea is to provide footing so the West Virginia Parkways Authority could float up to $1 billion in new bonds, financing a series of road projects across the entire state, among them the East Beckley-By Pass completion.
“This may not be a silver bullet,” Jason Pizatella, the governor’s deputy chief of staff and chairman of the commission, told the Parkways Authority in Thursday’s monthly meeting.
“It may not be a magic bullet. But it’s something we think is worthy of consideration by policy makers throughout the state, both in the Legislature and executive branch, so we can try to raise the kind of money so we have a transportation system we can all be proud of, without putting that system on the backs of ordinary West Virginians.”
Pizatella will lead the final commission meeting Sept. 19, at which time a laundry list of recommendations will be turned over to Tomblin.
And, it’s possible, he said after the Parkways meeting, that Tomblin will summon lawmakers back to the Capitol in a special session, as opposed to waiting until the next regular one in January.
Pizatella helped lead nine regional meetings of the commission — including ones in Princeton and Beckley — this summer to gauge public sentiment about the condition of the under-funded highways system and how to generate money to improve it.
What he and fellow members learned is that West Virginians value the road system, oppose tax increases in such items as fuel and consumer sales, and don’t mind paying tolls to use the highways, including the 88-mile Turnpike that stretches from Princeton to Charleston.
While some oppose tolls in general, Pizatella said he was surprised to learn that the idea of paying to use a road isn’t an idea that rankles most drivers.
Pizatella said he couldn’t ascertain if this attitude was couched in the national trend on adding more tolls, or whether the Federal Highway Administration has cautioned states they aren’t “coming to their rescue and it’s going to require states to share the load in a greater portion than they have in the past.”
Under the commission’s proposal, the Parkways Authority would be authorized to issue bonds up to $1 billion to benefit all 55 counties.
There is a ray of sunshine for southern West Virginians driving the Turnpike. If the bonds are invested, the four counties bordering it — Mercer, Raleigh, Fayette and Kanawha — would reap 25 percent of the proceeds, or $250 million, applicable to projects there.
And those would include not only the East Beckley By-Pass, but King Coal Highway, the Coalfields Expressway, U.S. 35, and Corridor H, the chairman told the authority.
To get the money needed to satisfy the bond purchasers, Pizatella said tolls would go up incrementally, but state residents using the E-ZPass discount system would see their rates frozen for at least five years.
Pizatella told the authority this idea didn’t originate with the commission but actually was borrowed from one approved in Ohio, which agreed to raise its charges and turn the proceeds over to its highways department.
Looking at West Virginia highway needs soaring into the “hundreds of millions,” and residents rigidly opposed to higher taxes, Pizatella said the commission realized that 1.8 million people in West Virginia cannot come up with that kind of revenue, but the cash, in reality, must be provided in higher bonding power.
As things stand now, the Parkways Authority is restricted to the issuance of $200 million in bonds, and current ones are due to be paid off in 2019, the year tolls are scheduled to be taken down.
This means the commission would need some new legislation to open the door for higher bonding and to extend the tolls beyond the scheduled 2019 removal.
One factor in making these Turnpike recommendations is the fact that 76 percent of the tolls are paid by out-of-state motorists, Pizatella said.
“We already know the Parkways Authority is one of the most efficiently run agencies in government,” he told the Turnpike’s governing board.
“We want to maintain that efficiency and that independence.”
Turnpike Manager Greg Barr was receptive to the ideas of the blue ribbon panel.
“People don’t want to increase taxes,” he said afterward.
“So they, and the fact that 76 percent of the traffic is from out of state, see this is an excellent opportunity to use that model to somehow leverage and unlock the value of the Turnpike for the state of West Virginia a little bit more.”
Barr pointed out the paving program — which began after tolls were hiked in 2009, for the first time since 1981 — will be completed in 2019, after which efforts will be directed at bridges.
“Built into any plan to bond the Turnpike requires good maintenance to satisfy the bondholders,” he said.
“When you fork out money to pay a toll, you expect a little bit more — travel plazas, restaurants, tourist information.”
Before any decision is made by Tomblin on advancing the commission’s proposals, either this year or in 2014, Pizatella said the governor first wants to discuss them with legislative leaders.