By Mannix Porterfield
An impassioned plea Thursday to maintain the controversial tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike beyond the scheduled cutoff in 2019 was laced with a warning that a non-stop, free ride would be tragic.
Bill Seaver of Mercer County issued the grim forecast after Turnpike Manager Greg Barr outlined the Princeton-to-Charleston highway’s status from all perspectives to him and other members of the governing board, the West Virginia Parkways Authority.
State Code stipulates the tolls must disappear once the bonds are satisfied, provided the highways commissioner feels the 88-mile road is in “good condition and repair.” As of this week, the outstanding debt was $62.74 million.
Using the same power points as he did before a legislative panel this week, Barr told the authority it would cost the Division of Highways an estimated $59 million a year to maintain the road.
No sooner had Barr finished than Seaver delivered a strong pitch to keep the tolls intact and to spread the word that this is vital if the road is to be maintained.
If tolls come down, he suggested, the road is likely to slip back into disrepair.
“It’s going to be an absolute tragedy for this state,” Seaver said.
“I’m not ashamed of the tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike.”
To assume the DOH can maintain the road, Seaver said, would be “absolutely insane,” adding, “That is not going to happen.”
Consequently, the change would affect communities up and down the highway, and, lead to the loss of jobs for 360 people assigned to the Turnpike, he said.
Seaver said his critics, in and out of the Legislature, have monopolized the conversation and that the time has come to correct misleading information about the tolls.
“This vision they have of riding a bulldozer up to the tollbooth with a sledgehammer in one hand and a cowboy hat in the other, if it comes to fruition, will be a tragedy for this state,” he said.
“Our people have never seen the other side of this argument. This has to be addressed.”
Seaver called for tollbooths on other roads in the state, saying this would be in line with a trend that has taken shape in adjoining states as road revenues become scarce across the nation.
Like many southern West Virginia residents, Seaver said he doesn’t like the tax any more than anyone else, but the tolls are vital to keeping the road in navigable condition.
If tolls are stricken, Barr said, the state would have to raise the fuel tax by 5 cents per gallon to maintain the toll road.
Altogether, the Turnpike has 426 lane miles and must operate strictly on tolls — 76 percent of which come from the pockets of out-of-state motorists and truck drivers, a total of $61.7 million a year.
Commercial traffic accounts for 48 percent of the revenues, or $39 million annually. On a daily basis, Barr noted, there are 96,000 transactions. West Virginia drivers put up $19.5 million of the revenues each year.
Three years ago, the Legislature, at the direction of Gov. Joe Manchin, abandoned the authority’s economic development and tourism functions, leaving it with the sole responsibility of maintaining the road.
Tolls rose in 2009, marking the first time since 1981, after a strenuous effort by southern lawmakers to block the increase. On the very day they went into effect, some appeared at a toll plaza to protest the higher fares.
Not only are routine costs of maintenance a consideration, but Barr said future projects would be imperiled with a loss of tolls, including the widening from Interstate 64 to the North Beckley Exit that leads to U.S. 19.
“That widening project down there may come up as a needed project,” he said.
By the projected 2019 toll cutoff, the manager said, aging bridges will have to be shored up, since they will be at least 40 years old, and that alone will cost about $10 million.
“Eventually, the age is just going to catch up with us,” he said.
“Our bridges are going to be a bit of focus after the paving is done.”
Abandoning tolls could lead to other expenditures the state would then have to assume, such as $25 million to paint the Yeager and Bluestone South bridges, erected in 1952, and dismantling toll plazas at a cost of $20 million.
Other questions would surface: what happens to Tamarack, since it is subsidized only on revenues from concessions and fuel sales, and those enterprises may not be allowed on an interstate?
“Will Tamarack be able to sustain itself?” Barr asked.
“If it needs a subsidy, where does it come from?”
Eventually, the authority hopes to sell or lease acreage around the mecca for West Virginia artisans with the hopes of a developer building a hotel, inspired by the influx of visitors this year at the Boy Scouts Jamboree in Fayette County.
“Will there be a hotel there then?” Barr said.
“The Boy Scout camp will spur interest in the Beckley area. I know it will, but to what extent will it benefit Tamarack?”
In another matter, Barr said travel during the Christmas holiday was down 10 percent compared to a year ago, despite gas prices that had dipped in the preceding weeks and generally mild weather.
For the 12-month period, however, transactions were up 1.3 percent.
“We’re going to keep our eye on it,” the Turnpike manager said.
“Hopefully, it will perk up after the winter months.”
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