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Committee members express concerns with Parkways bill


The Register-Herald

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — Legislators continued to question two of the governor’s roads measures, spending most of their time Wednesday debating a bill dealing with the West Virginia Parkways Authority.

In a meeting of the House Committee on Finance, members discussed House Bill 102, which will be replaced by House Bill 108. It deals with increasing money in the State Road Fund.

Legislators also asked questions and expressed concerns about House Bill 103, the Parkways Authority bill. Although the committee discussed the bill at both its morning and afternoon meetings, it did not vote on the measure Wednesday.

 Finance Chair Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said the goal of the meeting was to continue to ask questions in areas members wanted to address in a committee substitute.

Lawmakers asked questions of the committee’s chief counsel Mark McOwen, Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Smith and Parkways General Manager Greg Barr.

“What was shown this morning is that there are many areas of improvement in this bill,” Nelson said. “We will come back with a different bill, incorporating many areas in questions we have right now. We have right now, an open-ended bill.”

The bill would allow the Parkways Authority to issue bonds and allow their proceeds to be used by the Division of Highways, if the authority chooses, for roads and bridges anywhere in the state.

The bill gives priority consideration to construction, reconstruction, maintenance, improvement or repair of highways and bridges in Raleigh, Fayette, Wyoming and Mercer counties.

The bill also takes out the $200 million cap on what the authority can borrow.

The authority would not be able to use bonds for economic development or tourism projects.

The bill also removed the requirement for the authority to host public hearings in every county affected by the proposed Parkways project. Under the bill, the authority can hold at least one public meeting in any county which borders the parkways project or proposed project.

The bill calls for studying a flat rate for toll roads. Counsel McOwen said this fee could change from year to year. He said the bill does not mandate the program, but leaves it to the authority to set up the program.

Concerns legislators aired included whether too much power is vested in the Parkways Authority, whether there should be caps listed in the measure to set a maximum for the tolls and the flat rate, and whether certain roads would be tolled.

On the latter question, Smith said the department would look at places where there are high concentrations of commercial vehicles and out-of-state traffic. He said there are significant restrictions on tolling interstates. However, if a new bridge or tunnel is constructed, that could be a situation in which a road would be tolled, he said. He also said if a lane is added to an existing highway, only that lane would be tolled.

Smith clarified that there are no candidate projects in the state as possible toll roads, but said these would be situations where that could apply.

Smith said one option for the flat fee is to use DMV registration or to use the existing discount program with the transponders.

Delegate George Ambler, R-Greenbrier, asked whether the flat rate for the fee could be increased annually and if the bill could include safeguards to prevent that from happening.

Barr said he is not opposed to language added to the bill to reflect a cap of that annual fee. He said he can’t come up with the exact number of the cap, however, because traffic studies to look into out-of-state and commercial traffic have to be done first. Barr said these studies are costly and it’s difficult to spend money on something that could not be passed.

When asked whether the price of the annual flat fee would continue to increase, Barr said the goal is to have a discounted plan in the annual fee that is not too expensive for in-state residents, but will deter out-of-state residents from getting it.

“We want a plan that benefits West Virginians tremendously and for out-of-state residents not to buy it,” he said.

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