By CHARLIE BOOTHE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer County, is not giving up on his fight to eliminate tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike.
“The current trend of local groups supporting extension of tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike is troubling,” he said, referring to a recent resolution from the Beckley City Council in support of keeping the tolls.
That resolution was requested by the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce.
Those tolls are set to be eliminated in 2019, unless the state Legislature takes action.
Gov. Jim Justice has proposed allowing state residents to avoid the tolls by paying an $8 annual fee instead, while increasing the tolls for out-of-state motorists.
Gearheart introduced a bill in this year’s legislative session that would end the tolls, but the bill did not get out of the finance committee.
Gearheart said he wasn’t yet born in 1949, when legislation was passed to finance the building of the turnpike using tolls, a needed move at the time because of the expense of constructing a highway through mountainous terrain.
Construction started in 1952 with the first section of the highway, the southern 36 miles from Princeton to Beckley opening Sept. 2, 1954. In November 1954, the remaining 52 miles between Beckley and Charleston opened.
Between 1979 and 1987 the turnpike was upgraded to interstate standards because it had become too dangerous to handle the traffic being funneled in from Interstates 64 and 77, according to reports at the time.
The original bonds issued by the West Virginia Turnpike Commission were due in 1989, but $45 million was still owed.
That’s when the Parkways Authority was created to replace the commission and $143 million in new bonds was issued.
Those bonds mature in 2019, at which time the tolls are scheduled to end.
Gearheart wants to eliminate the Parkways Authority and turn that entity’s functions over to the state Department of Highways (DOH).
One of the problems, Gearheart says, is that money raised from the tolls over the years, now about $90 million a year, has not always been spent frugally.
“Further extension of this tolling has served mostly to buy the state ‘trinkets’ like Tamarack, a beautiful facility that has lost multiple millions of dollars since built with no path toward profitability,” he said.
The tolls have served as an additional tax on residents of southern West Virginia to pay for what the rest of the state received through traditional road funding methods, he added.
Gearheart said he has heard the arguments against eliminating the tolls, but they are not valid.
One of those arguments is the question of where would the money come from to maintain the turnpike without toll revenue.
“I think the more interesting questions should be, why hasn’t the road been maintained by the Division of Highway for all these years, and where have we spent all the money the federal government extended to the state based on the turnpike,” he said.
Gearheart also wants to know where all of the tax money raised by fuel expended by people driving on the turnpike been spent.
The questions are overlapping, he said.
“It has been estimated and conveyed to me by the former head of the West Virginia Division of Highways that we receive $12 million (annually) in federal dollars based on the turnpike,” he said. “None of these dollars are expended on the turnpike.”
Not only that, he said, most of the state highway fund comes from the West Virginia gas tax.
With traffic counts of more than 40,000 cars a day on the turnpike, that raises a lot of money, he said.
“I estimate that would be between $15 million and $20 million a year,” he said. “Again, not a dollar of this is spent to maintain that section of road.”
Gearheart said the reason that maintenance is part of the Parkways Authority’s responsibility is that it was required as security for the bonds and maintenance by the DOH is not part of how the agreement was structured.
“The point is simply that maintaining the turnpike is well within the capability and financial capacity of the Division of Highways,” he said. “The reality is that the Parkways Authority takes money out of the economy in order to maintain a bureaucracy.”
That bureaucracy employs about 400 people.
A justification for all of this has in the past been that a study in 2005 indicated that most of the money paid in tolls are from out-of-state drivers, almost 70 percent, he said. However, he said there is no known validity of that study or its application to today.
“The Parkways Authority perpetuates the short-sided narrative of ‘let the out-of-state people pay for our highway. They have to have use it, so let’s make them pay,’” he said. “This is said as if we do not spend millions to encourage people to visit here and as if these visitors do not benefit our economy when they arrive, all in the interest of supporting a large government organization that simply drives travelers to other routes and takes money out of our economy.”
Gearheart said the borrowing agreements related to what the Parkways Authority does have been structured to require the organization to handle the maintenance while “all the money generated from the federal government and gas tax is either wasted or spent in different parts of the state.”
“Make no mistake, the West Virginia Turnpike has been paid for several times over,” he said. “Southern West Virginia has done a great service to the balance of the state by allowing this highway to be paid for with tolls. Continuation of the tolls far beyond the current bond payoff point is a broken promise and is simply allowing southern counties to pay a disproportionate part of statewide highway spending while damaging our own economy.”
Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett agrees with Gearheart that the tolls are a burden on area residents.
He said it does “pain” him to spend the $12 for every round trip drive to Charleston, but right now, with the state’s economic woes, he sees the tolls as essential.
“While it may not seem popular to some, I feel that the tolls are an essential element to keeping our turnpike adequately maintained without a long-term burden on West Virginia,” he said. “If there was a better way to adequately maintain that road without a loss of services, I would be for it.”
But Puckett said the state is struggling economically to maintain its infrastructure.
“I don’t see a way to do without it (the tolls),” he said. “The tolls are an essential element to keeping the services intact. I just don’t see a way where our services will be supplied if they were to move to another system that is already stretched thin to manage its infrastructure.”
Puckett said he would support Justice’s plan to enact the $8 fee for everyone in the state to use the turnpike with no tolls and raise the tolls for out-of-state motorists.
“Our turnpike system has one of the lowest (fees) in the United States,” he said. “Surrounding states are much higher to ride on their roads.”
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