By Kate Coil
For The Register-Herald
Three bills will soon go before the West Virginia Legislature aimed at removing turnpike tolls from the West Virginia Turnpike.
Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, said he has contributed to two bills designed to remove turnpike tolls, which are currently still in the House of Delegates drafting section and not yet before the House. Gearheart said his bills would also provide alternative funding sources that some lawmakers feel would be lost by removing tolls.
“The bills we are entering not only provide for the eliminating of the turnpike tolls but precludes future borrowing secured by turnpike tolls,” he said. “It also provides a funding source for maintenance to the turnpike by the Division of Highways for some time. The reason we have done that is the biggest argument against the removal of tolls is — where would we find the money to maintain the highways if we eliminate the tolls. We want to eliminate that argument.”
Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, has also proposed a bill to “discontinue, remove and not relocate all toll collection facilities on the West Virginia Turnpike” before Feb. 1, 2020, as well as the removal of the building used to collect tolls at the intersection of U.S. 19 and I-77 in the Beckley area. Sumner’s bill is currently before the House Committee on Roads and Transportation, but Geartheart feels his bill and Sumner’s will eventually be combined.
“We have two bills that are similar to this bill, but ours are a little more extensive than Delegate Sumner’s,” Gearheart said. “I feel at least one of those two bills that is being sent through will run. I am certain Delegate Sumner will also be a co-sponsor on my bill. Before my entrance into the House, she and then Delegate Frazier, at the time, had introduced a bill about turnpike toll removal. Right now, my bill is still in the drafting section. We submitted it on day one of the legislative session.”
The most recent bill to remove tolls from the West Virginia Turnpike was proposed by Gearheart during the 2012 legislative session, but the bill died in committee. Rates on the toll road were raised as recently as 2009, the first increase to the tolls since 1981. Bonds on the road were originally projected to be paid off in 1999, but are now expected to be paid in full by July 2019. Construction on the turnpike began in 1952 and the road opened to traffic in the mid-1950s.
— Kate Coil is a writer for The Bluefield Daily Telegraph