Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

January 15, 2014

Arrogance, poor leadership exhibited by lawmakers in turnpike toll argument

— — There is perhaps no greater example of the alarming disconnect between lawmakers in Charleston and the good folks back home in southern West Virginia than turnpike tolls.

In the simplest of terms, we are expected to pay to travel to Charleston. Call it a toll, tax, unfair financial burden or whatever, but the simple fact of the matter is that it is long past time for tolls to be removed.

The tolls are not only unfair to folks living in the deep south counties, but they also serve as a hindrance to economic development and growth to the Mountain State as a whole. Why pay to travel on the West Virginia Turnpike when other roads such as Interstate 81 in neighboring Virginia is free? That means many will be taking their dollars out of state — spending money in Roanoke or Blacksburg instead of Charleston, Beckley, Princeton and Bluefield. And from a tourism and economic development standpoint, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Many folks in our region who are looking to get out of town every now and then already choose to drive to Blacksburg, Roanoke and even the North Carolina area just because there are no toll roads to be paid. Many of these individuals would probably drive and shop in Charleston, Huntington and Beckley more often if they didn’t have to pay tolls. And sadly they are not only spending their money out of town, but also in a neighboring state. That’s good news of course for the Commonwealth of Virginia, but not for West Virginia.

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The issue of toll removal is flaring up again in this year’s legislative session — as it should. Local lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell and Delegate Linda Goode Phillips, D-Wyoming, among several others, are once again leading the charge to remove tolls, as they should as elected representatives of the citizens of southern West Virginia.

But it is once again doubtful that we will see any meaningful action as it relates to the removal of tolls by 2019. That’s the magic date when the original bond indebtedness associated with the creation of the 880-mile toll road will expire. And common sense would dictate that once a debt is paid in full, you don’t keep paying for it. But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways has not only recommended keeping turnpike tolls intact past 2019, but also raising toll rates. This suggestion is nothing short of a slap in the face to area residents and business owners living in southern West Virginia. And the governor himself made no pledge or mention of removing turnpike tolls by 2019 in his State of the State address last week.

Bill Seaver, a well known businessman from Mercer County who also serves on the Parkways Authority board, makes the lone and only meaningful argument as to why tolls should remain intact after 2019. Seaver says dozens of Parkways Authority jobs would be lost once tolls are removed. But area lawmakers correctly argue that many of those positions should be absorbed by the state Division of Highways once it assumes maintenance and operation of the former toll road. Once that original bond debt is paid in full, there is simply no justification for keeping the Parkways Authority intact — and state officials know that. But if you are to believe their arguments, doing away with the sacred turnpike cash cow and taking over the 88 miles of Interstate 77 will not only bankrupt the DOH, but also the state as a whole. And that’s a ridiculous argument to make. That statement just illustrates the level of disrespect we often see coming out of Charleston for the deep south counties.

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There are two paths lawmakers can take this session. They can do the right thing for West Virginia and begin the process of setting the stage for the removal of tolls in 2019, and the transfer of the 88-mile toll road from the Parkways Authority to the state DOH. Or they can continue to take an attitude of arrogance and ignorance toward the deep south counties.

Many of these lawmakers who are voting to keep tolls intact have never visited Bluefield, Princeton, Bramwell or Welch in years, if not decades. They don’t shop in Mercer County. They don’t drive to McDowell County. They are oblivious to our region, our challenges and our proud heritage. Yet they think it is proper for us to pay a toll to travel north. Such an attitude is a true example of arrogance and poor leadership.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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