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W.Va. Turnpike tolls doubling?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — If Gov. Jim Justice’s plans for the West Virginia Turnpike come to fruition, toll fees may double, but passenger cars could use the toll road as often as they like for only $8 a year.

“If House Bill 103 passes in its current form, they (toll fees) will double,” said Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer County, adding that the turnpike would be used as a way to help raise money for the Governor’s roads plan.

“It (the bill) has been discussed in the finance committee,” Gearheart, who serves on that committee, said. “But it’s not on the agenda.”

The bill not only provides for an extension of the tolls and allows for the fee changes, he said, it also gives the state Parkways Authority, the entity that runs the turnpike, broader powers, including the possibility of overseeing other toll roads and highway projects in the state.

That’s the part that concerns Gearheart.

“It would give the Parkway Authority a greater expansion of what it does,” he said, adding that the Governor appoints all the authority’s members so he would, in essence, have the power himself.

“It would basically pay for whatever the Governor wants,” he said. “I am not willing to give him the unlimited power to award a favor or a punishment (with the funds).”

Gearheart is also concerned that if the authority handles other toll road projects in the state localities may not be involved in that process.

Ending the tolls altogether has been a quest for Gearheart, and once again this year he introduced a bill to do so, but it faltered.

“Make no mistake, the West Virginia Turnpike has been paid for several times over,” he recently 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.”

The current bond payoff point ends in 2019 and the tolls will end then without action by the Legislature.

House Bill 103 could be the action that extends it.

Grant Herring, press secretary for the Governor, said no toll fee increases are actually included in the bill.

“State law already vests the power to set the tolls on the turnpike with the West Virginia Parkways Authority once certain conditions are met,” he said. “This legislation modernizes the statutory framework governing the authority, makes the tolls on the turnpike permanent, and allows the agency to explore the potential of other toll roads in the state.”

Herring said the legislation also calls for “a single-fee system, an $8 EZ-PASS, to implement the Governor’s vision of allowing all West Virginians to drive for free.”

The single-fee system would replace the Governor’s previous plan of increasing DMV fees $8 a year to allow state motorists to use the turnpike at no charge.

Gearheart said the Governor wanted to increase toll fees for out-of-state motorists to raise money for highway projects, along with the DMV fee for residents, but that idea eventually became legally cloudy.

Any out-of-state motorist, he said, has to have equal access to a fee structure that state residents have.

Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell, who supports HB 103, said any passenger vehicle motorist from any state would be able to purchase the $8 EZ-PASS, but how many would is not known because they may not know about it or may be just passing through once and pay the increased rate.

Regardless, it would be a big help for residents in this part of the state, he added.

“Buying that pass is a no-brainer for me,” he said. “Just one round-trip to Charleston costs $12 ($2 at each of the three plazas both ways). We are sick of tolls. But under his (the Governor’s) plan, if I can buy an EZ-PASS for $8 I’m going to buy the pass.”

Evans said it would also be a great way to raise revenue for other roads and projects, which is part of Justice’s proposed $2.8 billion roads plan.

Gregory Barr, general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, sees the potential benefits of HB 103 as well.

“My understanding is that it is the Governor’s bill to raise tolls and sell bonds to raise money for his roads plan,” he said. “It would be a doubling of tolls (for non-commercial passenger cars) but implementing a flat fee for unlimited use (for passenger vehicles).”

Barr said there are no plans to double the tolls unless the single-fee plan is implemented.

But there is some debate about the stability of the fee over time, he said.

“How long will it remain $8?” he said. “Who can raise it? There is also some discussion about setting a cap.”

Barr said the details of how much revenue would be expected over time is important because the mechanism to borrow money through bonds depends on solid financing.

“Some wiggle room (in raising tolls) is needed when you go to the bond market,” he said. “They want to know there is some flexibility to tweak it.”

Determining the impact of any fee changes on turnpike revenues is part of the process, he said.

The tolls bring in about $90 million a year now, he said, but one useful planning detail is that about $45 million of that comes from commercial vehicles, especially tractor-trailers, which make up 20 percent of all turnpike traffic.

Barr said that under the Governor’s plan, the commercial fees would increase, but not double.

Currently, the tolls for large tractor-trailers range from $5.40 EZ-PASS at each toll booth to $6.75. Those fees would rise, but details have not yet been determined.

Barr said the $8 EZ-PASS with the plan would allow residents, as well as out-of-state residents, if they purchase it, to drive the turnpike for a year as often as they like at no extra charge.

If the tolls end altogether, as Gearheart wants, Barr said that $90 million a year would go to zero and the state would have to take over maintenance.

“Some people think that if the tolls come off, the state would get more federal funding,” Barr said. “They won’t get any more federal funding than they are getting now. It would be an additional burden.”

Part of the Governor’s plan is to sell bonds to help fund other road projects, he said, as well as address the state of disrepair roads are in now.

“It (the plan) would be a nice boost to the economy,” he said, referring to the estimated 48,000 jobs that the Governor says would be created to do the work.

Barr also said that one criticism related to the commercial toll increase negatively impacting the number of commercial vehicles using the turnpike delivering products here or shipping them out is also questionable.

“A study done in 2005 and reaffirmed in 2009 … showed that, overall, a little over 62 percent of the commercial vehicles using the turnpike are just passing through,” he said. “They are not stopping anywhere, even for fuel (because of higher fuel costs here).”

That percentage is higher on weekends, he added.

To Gearheart’s point about localities being involved in the process if a road that comes through their county and is built as a toll road, Barr said some projects in the past have seen a change of leadership on the local level resulting in a different mindset that can hinder, or even stop, planned projects.

Building roads and going to the bond market is a complicated process, he said, and there is a “filtering test.”

“There has to be a projected minimum revenue,” he said. “Unless that road is going to have a large amount of commercial traffic or out-of-state traffic, it won’t be a viable toll road.”

The bonding authority has to know it will get its money back, he added.

Barr said the state Department of Highways (DOH) makes the eventual call on whether to move forward with a project, but the Parkways Authority does the homework and could take over the project.

“We do the studies and sell bonds,” Barr said. “The DOH comes to us and our board and asks, ‘would you all accept this road project as a Parkways project?’”

Barr said the authority has always had the ability to raise tolls, but has done so rarely and at one point went 28 years with no toll hike.

“They (the tolls) are not going to be jacked up on everybody just because we can do it,” he said. “There has to be a darn good reason. In this case, the roads plan can jump start the state and the economy. State road projects have been on the back-burner for a long time. Everything is getting older and breaking down.”

Mike Mitchem, executive director of the King Coal Highway Authority, is well aware of being on the back-burner.

Sections of that highway have been completed but a lack of funding has brought construction to a crawl. Part of that project, the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” in Bluefield that connects with Interstate 77, has been budgeted the $50 million needed to extend it to the airport area on Rt. 20. It’s on the state’s six-year plan but no construction timetable has yet been announced.

The Coalfield Expressway (Rt. 121) is another ongoing project that continues to be delayed.

Both highways, which will cross coalfield counties into Virginia, will help bring economic development to part of the state that has been struggling because of the decline in the coal industry, regional officials say.

But even funding to keep the King Coal Highway Authority going is in doubt, Mitchem said, anticipating a meeting with the Governor after the budget issues are resolved in Charleston.

“We are hopeful right now,” Mitchem said last month. “We are still going and will continue if things go well. But it all hinges on what’s going on in the budget. A lot of different things are going on right now.”

At that time, Mitchem was expecting a meeting with the Governor by the end of May.

“We will just have to wait,” he said last week, referring to the continued impasse between the Governor and the House on help revenue and budget bills.

But he said a toll road may be a way to get the job done.

It’s also a way to get it done that, overall, Gearheart would not oppose.

“I have no quarrel with that,” he said. “But if it can be tolled, it should be tolled with local approval. If our county commission agrees to it then it could happen.”

Here is the purpose statement attached to HB 103:

West Virginia Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority (hereinafter created and subsequently renamed the West Virginia Parkways Authority), is hereby authorized and empowered to construct, reconstruct, improve, maintain, repair, and operate and finance parkway projects, economic development projects and tourism projects (as those terms are hereinafter defined in section five of this article) at such locations as shall be approved by the state Department of Transportation. … to study, investigate and evaluate and, if feasible, develop and implement a single-fee program the purpose of which is to charge a flat fee to owners of motor vehicles registered in this state or any other state which opts into any such program.

The bill was referred to the House Finance Committee last month.

— Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected]

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