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Chamber asks legislators to re-issue Turnpike bonds

By JESSICA FARRISH

The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce officers are asking West Virginia lawmakers to re-issue bonds for the West Virginia Turnpike, and Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold said he’s hoping city council members will join the effort.

If heeded by legislators, the move would allow for continued toll collections on the Turnpike, which are set to stop in May 2019, when a current bond is paid off.

“I’m, personally, very much in favor of re-bonding the turnpike when the current bonds are paid off,” Rappold said Wednesday. “I like the idea of the well-maintained, safe highway, and we have that now.”

Rappold made his statement Wednesday, after local attorney and BRCCC representative Paul Hutchinson reported at the regular Common Council meeting Tuesday evening that the Chamber supports a plan to refinance and reissue bonds for the Turnpike, after the current bonds are paid in May 2019.

Current legislation requires that tolls will end once the bond is paid, but many in the state are asking lawmakers to amend the law and to allow for the collection of tolls after 2019.

Funding for the Turnpike doesn’t come from state tax dollars or federal funding but from a special revenue account that is paid via tolls.

Around 76 percent, or $65 million annually, of the revenue collected via tolls is currently paid by out-of-state drivers. In a 30-year-period, Hutchinson said, a projected $2.5 billion in tolls will be paid, and about $2 billion will be paid by those from outside of West Virginia.

Hutchinson and Beckley attorney John Wooton, both former state legislators, helped to craft the original bond legislation in 1989 that paid for the turnpike, an 88-mile long stretch of highway, according to Hutchinson.

“This is a major asset for West Virginia,” Hutchinson said. “We are right here in Beckley, exits right in the middle of it.”

If bonds aren’t re-issued, the Turnpike will be maintained by the state Division of Highways, he added.

“We’re concerned about this,” Hutchinson told council. “If this Turnpike is turned over to the State Department of Highways, I don’t need to say anything else. Do I?”

The Turnpike is overseen by the West Virginia Parkways, Tourism and Economic Development Authority, which was created in June 1989.

Hutchinson said the BRCCC is issuing a resolution to lawmakers urging re-bonding of the Turnpike, and he asked council members to approve its own resolution to legislators.

Rappold said he agrees with Hutchinson’s request.

“I can’t predict what city council will do,” the mayor said. “My gut feeling, though, is that we have good, solid thinkers on city council, and it wouldn’t surprise me, if they did pass that resolution.”

City attorney Bill File said Tuesday that a resolution, which will require one reading, could be presented to the council at the next meeting.

Gov. Jim Justice has called for a $2 increase in Turnpike tolls in his proposed budget to legislators.

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