The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 17, 2013

Phillips: Bond OK, if spent within 70 miles of ’pike

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — A southern lawmaker has no problem with floating a $1 billion bond issue, as suggested by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, but is insistent that all of the borrowed money be applied to roads within a 70-mile radius of the West Virginia Turnpike.

After all, says Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, southern residents have been paying tolls since the turnpike opened  six decades ago, and if they’re going to keep paying them, it is only logical they finance roads near them, and not pay the freight for folks in other regions.

Moreover, Phillips says her support is contingent on another condition — no increase in tolls, and elimination of them by the original drop-dead date of 2019.

“Those counties that the turnpike travels through deserve some attention with their road funding,” Phillips said.

“Their state roads would necessarily be used more by residents traveling to and from Interstate 64/turnpike. However, no mention was made of Wyoming and McDowell counties. These two are being left out. This road is the only expedient/efficient road to travel in any direction to get out of the coalfields. These counties deserve consideration as well.”

Phillips pointed out that in most sections of those counties, commuters must drive at least 45 minutes to reach the turnpike, then pay to use it.

The Blue Ribbon Commission, set up by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, conducted a series of regional meetings this summer, including ones in Mercer and Raleigh counties, before issuing recommendations for financing highway construction and maintenance.

One of them calls for tolls to remain on the turnpike — 68 percent of those polled at the Beckley meeting didn’t object to this — but eventually raising the fare based on inflation. And, another recommendation was that E-ZPass users in West Virginia would have their charges frozen for five years.

Attempting to make the proposal more palatable, the commission’s chairman, Jason Pizatella, who is Tomblin’s deputy chief of staff, told the turnpike’s governing board two weeks ago in Beckley that money generated by the bond issue could be spent on road projects in southern counties — such as the King Coal Highway, the Coalfields Expressway, and completion of the East Beckley By-Pass.

“Those counties that have four-lane roads are concerned about traffic flow and congestion, because they have prospered and grown quickly,” Phillips said.

“Wyoming and McDowell counties need four lanes for industry, growth, jobs for our very existence. Yet, some counties that surround Wyoming and McDowell counties are continuing their infrastructures with immense road projects, bridges, and extending their four-lanes with work that does not cease during winter months. The Coalfields Expressway has slowed to a virtual crawl; the King Coal Highway has completely stopped.”

Phillips said she understands the immense problems facing West Virginia’s network of roads.

“However, I do not believe increased tolls and extending tolls beyond 2019 are the answer,” the delegate said.

“The funding of roads needs to be equalized across all areas of our state, not just centered in one location.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com