CHARLESTON — While lawmakers pore over a bundle of bills inspired by higher tolls, the West Virginia Parkways Authority is imposing a freeze on new bonds and capital improvements.

One thing that could change, based on traffic and financial studies, is the new $7 per barrier toll for large commercial trucks.

Even before the first bill was offered in the Legislature, Gov. Joe Manchin wanted to see if a lower toll for truckers, in the range of $5, was feasible, his representative on the board, Joe Martin, told reporters after Thursday’s meeting.

“We’re moving ahead,” Martin said. “We’re waiting for studies now.”

Passenger cars went from $1.25 to $2 per barrier, but such motorists were allowed to continue using a discounted pass — $95 per barrier if paid up front or $100 if billed.

There is no discount for commercial haulers, and over-the-road truckers have complained bitterly about that lack.

“Gov. Manchin has indicated that he expects a significant discount to be established,” Martin said.

Martin acknowledged that $5 is “within the range of what’s being considered,” but all this depends on the impact of the lower rate on turnpike revenues.

For now, everything at the authority is on hold until the Legislature decides what to do with a number of bills. Some want no new bonds issued and the tolls stricken once the outstanding $100 million debt is satisfied.

Others seek outright dissolution of the authority and giving the 88-mile turnpike to the Division of Highways — an idea that has raised eyebrows at the authority.

Martin, who chairs the board, pointed to the existing bond debt, along with some $9 million in Tamarack; that one is payable only with concessions.

“The question also then becomes, can the DOH handle the additional financial strain of maintaining an additional 415 lane miles of roadway in some of the worst climate and most difficult terrain in the state,” he said.

Until the dust settles on this legislative session, however, Martin said, “it would be imprudent for the authority to take any irrevocable steps while the question is still unsettled.”

“We don’t intend to issue any additional debt or bonds,” he said.

“We don’t intend to contract for any major capital projects until the question of the ongoing structure of the authority revenue levels are settled.”

Even so, he pledged the turnpike would be maintained as usual and Tamarack would stay open.

“But we will not take any steps that can’t be undone until the final resolution of these questions is made,” he said.

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While the authority can do nothing about the $55 million Shady Spring interchange, since it was imposed by the Legislature as “irrevocable” when the bonding capacity was elevated, the authority can halt, or amend, the proposed 8-mile widening from North Beckley interchange to the Interstate 64-77 divide.

That project, bearing a $62 million price tag, is viewed as critical to safety by turnpike Manager Greg Barr.

Martin agreed the congestion has worsened in recent years.

“We’ll do the best we can with revenue we have available,” he said.

Barr has appeared twice before lawmakers in this session and is due for another go-round Feb. 14 before the House Finance Committee.

Southern lawmakers have been up in arms ever since the higher tolls came on line New Year’s Day, but Martin refused to be drawn into a reporter’s question about the possibility that election-year politics flavored the debate.

“I think members are sincerely concerned about an issue that affects a number of West Virginians and their intention to study it, which is perfectly appropriate,” the former House majority leader said.

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In the board meeting, Alan Susman, who heads the facilities committee, said parkways meeting minutes show the proposed projects and potential impacts on tolls were discussed the past 18 months.

“This business of it’s a surprise, we talked about toll increases and this thing and another,” he said.

“If they look at the minutes of various committee meetings, there’s plenty of information. We didn’t just jump up and do this thing. There was a lot of say that went into it. To say that we have just done this irresponsibly, and this and that and the other, I think is just wrong.”

Tom Winner, finance committee chair, reminded board members the Legislature handed the board the Shady Spring project, but now some lawmakers are grousing over toll increases.

“They’re saying, ‘you have that mandate, but you can’t have the money to do this,’” Winner said.

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Even with the first toll increase in 24 years, motorists are using the Princeton-to-Charleston road increasingly, figures show,

In fact, vehicles passing through toll booths rose 1.89 percent in the first 23 days of January. Figures reveal 1,702,292 users last month, compared to 1,670,656 for the corresponding period a year ago.

That resulted in a 63.34 percent boost in tolls, meaning the authority took in $4,179,186.60 this year and $2,889,146.03 last.

Barr has said the higher tolls are calculated to yield an extra $24 million per year to not only help pay off potential bonds for the two expansion projects but finance deferred paving and bridge restoration.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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