Why on God’s green Earth has the state legislature dawdled on the question of whether or not to extend tolling on the West Virginia Turnpike? Seriously. We have looked all around the issue for the past few years and have not found a single, solitary good reason the $2 fee shouldn’t be continued once the bonds are paid off in May 2019.
Under current state law, toll collections will cease, the Parkways Authority will disband and the commissioner of Highways will assume oversight of the Turnpike the year after next if legislators fail to amend current legislation.
Forget – in the short term – that legislative inaction makes hostages of Authority employees who cannot know what the future holds for their employment prospects.
Forget – in the short term – that Authority officials may have to write special and more expensive construction contracts for any project extending beyond two years.
Forget – in the short term – that any vacancy in staffing might have to be filled by temporary workers who would earn a grand sum of $9.68 an hour with no benefits. Yeah, how difficult do you think it would be to find qualified and reliable labor – on a temporary basis – at $20,000 a year?
For legislators suffering from short-term memory loss, here is your wake up call:
● Around $90 million is collected in annual toll revenues, with $67 million coming from out-of-state drivers.
● There are some 400 West Virginia Turnpike employees who pay taxes, spend grocery money, send kids to school, buy cars and enjoy a dinner out every once in awhile.
● The four-lane Turnpike running through some of the most mountainous terrain in the East consists of 88 miles of highway, representing 426 miles of road, 116 bridges, 18 interchanges, four toll plazas, three travel plazas, a welcome center, two rest areas, 300,000 square feet of facilities, 6,428 culverts, 4,070 road signs, 900 roadway lights and 595 acres of area mowed within the right-of-way.
If the tolls go away, the state would be back on the hook for the upkeep of all of that. With a $500 million budget deficit looming this coming fiscal year and a projected $700 million the year after next, just where is that road money coming from?
If the tolls are not extended, the state’s Division of Highways – not exactly flush with cash lying around the office – is going to be responsible for all the paving, bridge painting, bridge deck replacement, snow and ice removal and all of the maintenance of the highway. Price tag? An estimated $60 million per year.
There’s an old idiom about looking a gift horse in the mouth that applies to our state’s legislative leaders. Shouldn’t they just be thankful for the gift that is the Parkways Authority? For a smooth ribbon of highway from the coalfields to the capitol? For safer passage on snowy days?
It would be fair to suggest that the state is in its current financial firestorm because it has legislative leaders, delegates and senators who do not know how to manage success – let alone respond to failure.
Remind us, how were all of those coal severance taxes of the past invested? Do we have world-class universities and medical centers? Do we have excellent roads all across the state? Are our communities growing? Has broadband been extended to every nook and cranny? Did we diversify our economy?
The Turnpike Authority and the tolls are working. Beautifully. Why mess with that?
It is no small wonder the state is where it is given this one simple example of how – by passing legislation that would extend tolling on the Turnpike – we can’t seem to appreciate and replicate success, let alone recognize it when we’re slapped upside the head.