Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

September 25, 2013

As a government shutdown looms, turnpike tolls once again prompt ire

— — Could another October surprise be looming? I’m not talking about another local governmental gridlock over when to schedule Halloween trick-or-treat times (and what a spooky mess that was last year for elected leaders across Mercer County), but instead the possibility of a partial or limited federal government shutdown.

Yes, Congress is back in session, and so is the political gridlock that has come to define Washington in recent years. The deadline to prevent a partial government shutdown is Oct. 1. Whether lawmakers can come to any agreements by then is anyone’s guess at this point. If not, we could be heading over the dreaded fiscal cliff once again.

Republicans are attempting to block funding for the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. They point to recent national polls that suggest a growing number of Americans apparently don’t support the new health care law, which takes effect on Oct. 1. Democrats are vowing to fight any effort by Republicans to defund Obamacare, and President Barack Obama is, of course, promising to veto any GOP bill that would strip funding for the new health care law. What are the chances of both the House and the Senate — Democrats and Republicans — coming to an agreement by Oct. 1? It is really hard to say at this point. But the political environment in Washington is becoming increasingly toxic. And political parties are trying to make a point. Tea party-backed Republicans are determined to stop Obamacare, and Democrats are apparently determined to save the new health care law. If the two parties can’t come together, a government shutdown could occur.

As has been the case over the past two years or so, both parties usually do come to some type of agreement in the final hours of a looming deadline. Will that happen again this month, or before midnight on Oct. 1? It’s hard to say. Maybe we will actually see a partial or limited government shutdown this go around. The next couple of days should certainly be interesting.

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Speaking of government at its worse, it would appear that members of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways are determined to do harm to the deep south counties. How this panel could recommend not only a turnpike toll increase, but also a continuation of tolls after the original turnpike bond indebtedness is paid in full in 2019 is truly baffling. Their recommendations are a true slap in the face to the good citizens and business owners across southern West Virginia — particularly considering that the House of Delegates voted earlier this year to eliminate tolls along the 88-mile turnpike.

It would appear — as Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, bluntly puts it — that the work of this particular panel has indeed been “a colossal failure.” It’s too bad that political leaders in southern West Virginia can’t threaten a government shutdown of our own as a way of doing away with tolls on the turnpike.

Legislation that would end tolls along the 88-mile toll road by 2019 passed the House by a vote of 97-1 earlier this year, but was killed in the Senate when senators suggested the House action to remove tolls was premature because the Blue Ribbon Commission had not yet issued its final recommendations at that time.

 It looks like waiting for the commission members to come up with their recommendations may have been a big waste of time.

It’s hard to imagine how any government official could argue for not only keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike, but also increasing them. The problem is that most lawmakers who live north of Beckley don’t drive the turnpike on a regular basis. They don’t have to pay a toll to go to Beckley or Charleston. And apparently they don’t drive to Princeton or Bluefield very often, or otherwise they would understand the frustration of being forced to pay tolls. So from that standpoint I can see how it is easy for someone sitting in Charleston to say keep the tolls intact, or raise the tolls.

That’s because the tolls don’t impact them. I agree with what so many of our readers are saying. If we are going to keep tolls on the turnpike, let’s toll other parts of the state as well. Put a toll in Charleston. Put a toll in Huntington. Let other people across the state share in the same pain we have been dealing with for years and years.

As it stands now, it is more appealing for some to travel to Christiansburg, Va., or Roanoke, Va., as opposed to Charleston or Beckley simply because we aren’t tolled to visit our sister cities in Virginia. That’s fair. Being charged a tax to go to Beckley or Charleston isn’t.

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

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