By Kate Coil
For The Register-Herald
Area lawmakers are still hoping to see a portion of turnpike toll revenues returned to four local counties.
A Senate committee has been meeting in Charleston this week to discuss the legality of returning roughly $4 million in toll revenues to Mercer, Raleigh, Fayette and Kanawha counties as well as what these revenues could be spent on.
Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, said the committee was created by the Legislature to look at how turnpike tolls could be used by the four counties where the turnpike is operated. Chafin said the committee was created to further discuss Senate Bill 475, which Chafin introduced and which was co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, and 15 other senators.
“This would require the West Virginia Parkways Economic Development and Tour-ism Authority to transfer one half of one percent of the gross revenues it receives from operating the West Virginia Turnpike to the county commissions where the highway is located,” Chafin said. “The Legislature requested the creation of a Joint Committee on Government and Finance to study disbursing a portion of turnpike tolls to host counties.”
Cole said the interim committee has been researching how to legally bring $4 million of the funds accrued from the tolls and give them back to local counties.
“The infrastructure committee referred this bill to an interim study committee, which at least means the bill has the potential for life,” Cole said. “There is a concern this proposal would encounter legal issues. We will have the lawyer responsible for the bond covenants on the turnpike to come in at our next meeting and tell us if this proposal is in violation of the bond covenants. If it is, our next step will be seeing if we can waive or rewrite those covenants.”
Chafin said the committee looked into using funds the county accrued from tolls to increase emergency service availability and equipment on the roadway.
“This committee met with representatives from Fayette, Kanawha, Mercer and Ra-leigh to discuss how these funds might be used in their respective counties,” Chafin said. “Kanawha County Manager Jennifer Sayre said the funds would go to emergency services and responders who are called out for accidents and other emergencies on the turnpike. Updated equipment, technology and education would increase the safety of motorists traveling on the turnpike.”
Other possible uses included promoting economic development in turnpike counties.
“Other county representatives suggested using the funds to help support and supplement declining funding in other departments such as infrastructure, tour-ism and economic development,” Chafin said. “Although the turnpike is being used by people from all over the state, it is the residents of these four counties who have to pay more in tolls and taxes than anyone else and it would be nice for just a little of that money to return for the betterment of their communities.”
Though the turnpike bonds are due to be paid off in 2019, Cole said residents in southern West Virginia need relief from turnpike tolls sooner.
“In the meantime, the turnpike is profiting to the tune of much more than the $4 million we are proposing should go to local counties,” Cole said. “Our residents pick up the bulk of these tolls, so our residents should benefit from them. This proposal is a good middle ground.”
Cole said the amount the turnpike tolls bring in is so large that many state agencies and lawmakers feel losing out on toll revenue would hurt the state’s budget.
“We are under such stress with the state budget,” Cole said. “I understand that it is difficult to give up such a large amount of revenue. It may mean cuts have to be made to other programs, which is why the Division of Highways and others have been so against this. No one wants to give up such a large revenue source, especially when it isn’t easily replaced.”
However, Cole said he and other local lawmakers will continue to fight against the tolls.
“I will work as hard as I can with the rest of our southern West Virginia delegation to ensure that we do everything possible to prevent the further negative impact of these tolls, both prior to and after 2019,” Cole said. “The fight is not over yet.”
— Kate Coil is a reporter with the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.