Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

August 22, 2012

Turnpike toll debate heats up as presidential election hits close to home

While the state Legislature isn’t scheduled to return to regular session until January, the old turnpike toll debate is once again flaring up in southern West Virginia.

I guess folks need something to fight about every now and then, and this unfair financial burden being levied upon the hard-working folks of the deep south counties is certainly fodder for a good political showdown in Charleston.

Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, recently helped fuel the turnpike toll debate during an interim session of the Select Committee on Infrastructure, and now Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, is adding more fuel to the fire. During the meeting in question last month, Turnpike Authority General Manager Greg Barr argued that if turnpike tolls are removed in 2019 — when the original bond indebtedness for the 88-mile corridor is paid in full — the state would have to come up with some other way to fund the operation and maintenance of the road.

 Barr argues the $82 million loss would have to come from taxpayers, which Chafin and Gearheart dispute. They, along with other lawmakers such as Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, correctly note that the turnpike tolls are comparable to a “double tax” on the citizens of southern West Virginia. And businesses are growing tired of the toll as well, Chafin argued last week in his Under the Capitol Dome report.

It’s no secret that motorists in Mercer and McDowell counties are among those most adversely affected by the tolls. That’s because we have to pay a whopping $12 for a round-trip to Charleston and back. That’s a toll folks living in other parts of the state don’t have to pay when traveling to and from Charleston. Even the good citizens of Beckley can cut that cost in half (by missing the initial toll booth near Ghent). And folks in McDowell County also have another option, depending upon what part of the county they live in. If it’s Anawalt, Northfork, Keystone, Skygusty or Gary, it would probably be quicker to still travel Route 52 to Bluefield. If you live in Welch, Roderfield or Davy, you could travel through Wyoming County and bypass the tolls altogether.

Paying the tolls is a frustration. There is no question about it. But to hear Parkways Authority officials say the tolls should remain intact long after the original bond indebtedness is paid in full come 2019 is particularly troublesome. Once a debt is paid in full, it is paid in full. You don’t keep making payments. That’s just good old-fashioned common sense.

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Speaking of common sense, it seems to be lacking on the campaign trail for both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. I recently had plenty of time each morning to read the newspaper from front to back during my recent recovery at home from surgery. But reading articles about the president talking up a storm about the benefits of wind turbines, and Romney and running mate Paul Ryan talking about turning Medicare into a voucher system for future retirees, was frustrating.

I had to openly gasp at some of the comments made by Obama as he boldly touted the benefits of wind energy.

While he may have been campaigning in a specific geographic section of the country, the president may have forgotten that his remarks were being shared with the entire nation. That means his glowing endorsement of wind turbines as our only real salvation against the looming global warming catastrophe was also published in newspapers in states that produce coal, oil and natural gas as well. And we aren’t seeing any benefits from wind turbines down here in coal country. In fact, our local governing body on the Virginia side even passed an ordinance aimed at keeping wind turbines off of our ridgelines.

 And despite being only about 45 minutes away from Bluefield last week, Vice President Joe Biden failed to mention the word “coal” during a campaign rally in Wytheville, Va. Instead, he created an ugly controversy by talking about people being in chains during a campaign stop in Danville. He tried to clarify those comments during the stop in Wytheville, but at that point, the story had already went national and the damage was done.

Romney and Ryan, in the meantime, continue to walk a dangerous political tightrope as they talk about revamping Medicare. Both candidates need to get back on message. Cutting Medicare isn’t going to win you an election, nor is talking about wind turbines all across the country. What we need to hear is the specific plan for job creation by the candidates. After all, the economy is still the number one issue on the minds of voters.

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Biden has already been in Southwest Virginia, and Obama is hopping all around the Commonwealth like the Easter Bunny. So the big question now is whether or not Romney will schedule a stop in Southwest Virginia. I suspect he will — perhaps sooner than later. Virginia is a key battleground state, and every vote cast in the Commonwealth will be of critical importance this November. A stop in Tazewell County would make sense as it is located at the state-line border of both Virginia and West Virginia. And Romney needs to win both states if he is to have any chance at winning in November. Obama, by comparison, only needs to win Virginia based upon current Electoral College math.

If Romney makes it into coal country, it will be interesting to see what he has to say about coal, oil and natural gas — and wind turbines for that matter. Obama also shouldn’t rule out a campaign stop in the coal-producing counties of Southwest Virginia.

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

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