The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 10, 2013

Delegate will not give up on measure to end turnpike tolls

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — A session-long attempt to dry up toll collections on the West Virginia Turnpike by 2020 ended in defeat, but not despair, for the chief architect of the failed legislation.

Rather than take up the bill, Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, referred the issue to a study resolution for interims work this year.

Saddled with Delegate Marty Gearheart’s bill was one offered by Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, to divert some of the toll revenues to the four counties bordering the 88-mile highway — Raleigh, Fayette, Mercer and Kanawha.

“I’m disappointed that the senator in charge of transportation didn’t give me an opportunity to fully explain to him the bill,” Gearheart, R-Mercer, said after Tuesday’s floor session.

“I think it might have gotten more consideration.”

Gearheart’s proposal, rewritten in part by a House committee, sought to turn operation of the Princeton-to-Charleston road to the Division of Highways once the $65 million in outstanding bonds are satisfied in seven years.

Once done, the toll booths would have been dismantled.

The House passed the turnpike bill 97-1, after hearing mostly southern legislators denounce the tolls as “double taxation” and a failure to live up to the original pledge to end them once the original costs of building the road were paid.

Considered a “modern miracle,” in the opinion of a national publication, since crews had to slice through huge mountains and rock to build it, the Turnpike opened in 1954.

“It’s unfortunate, because the reasoning given for not considering the bill can be explained and deficiencies that Sen. Beach found bear some answers,” Gearheart said.

“And we’re not going to get that opportunity to do that.”

Even in defeat, Gearheart’s resolve remained strong.

“Those that know me recognize that I’m not a quitter,” the delegate said.

“I’ll be back and this bill will be back. And we’ll answer the questions. They’ll have to turn us down.”

Chafin wanted to dedicate one-half of 1 percent of the annual tolls collection to the four border counties to spur economic development.

At the time, Chafin figured the counties would pocket about $1 million to help their individual economies.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com