By Mannix Porterfield
For half a century, southern West Virginians have dutifully shelled out dollars to ride the 88-mile-long Turnpike, and now one senator thinks it is time for them to get some home-grown benefit in return.
A bill led by Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, would dedicate one-half of 1 percent of the annual take in tolls to the four counties bordering the Princeton-to-Charleston highway — Raleigh, Mercer, Fayette and Kanawha.
“The only way we’re going to help our counties, like having a horse park in Mercer, and different things in economic development, in Raleigh County, for instance, is to give a little pinch of what they’re taking in,” he said Wednesday.
Using figures by the West Virginia Parkways Authority, which operates the Turnpike, the senator figures all four counties would pocket about $1 million apiece.
Last year, Chafin pointed out, the Turnpike took in $83,907,000 in tolls, and another $7,217,000 in other revenues, for a total of $91,124,000.
Deducting operating expenses, that left the authority with $11,186,000, he said.
“They’ve had enough to build Tamarack and all kinds of other things,” Chafin said.
Chafin recalled how he and the late Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, fought the authority for years over the relentless toll system.
“The distinguished minority leader and I fought many gallant fights out there to try to do something about those tolls,” he said.
“It’s (Turnpike) been paid off but they keep re-upping it.”
Under state law, the tolls could be dismantled in 2019, the year outstanding bonds are to be satisfied, but Chafin isn’t optimistic about this happening.
“They’re not going to take the tolls off in 2019, most likely,” he said.
Chafin said he chose one-half of 1 percent for the four counties because a higher amount might provide fodder to the authority that removing too much money would jeopardize its ability to pay off the bond indebtedness.
“This is just a little start,” he said.
“It takes a little bit back to those people who have paid for it.”
Thirteen fellow senators signed on to his bill, including Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bob Beach, D-Monongalia.
“When you have the transportation chairman sign on, and you have senators from the four counties, you have a good chance of getting it out of the Senate,” Chafin said.
Another co-sponsor is freshman Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, who will see to it that the funds are equally split among the four counties, he said.
Another bill offered in the House by Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, would turn the Turnpike over to the Division of Highways in 2020, once the road has been totally financed.
Money diverted to counties in Chafin’s bill would be dedicated to economic development, and that would embrace infrastructure improvements.
“My charge here is to make the environment in those counties good enough and nice enough that people will want to build a horse park, or locate something there, whether you have an industrial park, or whatever you need,” he said.
“I’m not going to try to micro-manage what county commissions do. They’re elected to do that.”
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