Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Lawmakers in the West Virginia House of Delegates have spoken in a unanimous and resounding voice in their 97-1 vote to correctly abolish turnpike tolls by 2020. It’s now time for the Senate and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to follow their lead.
The House vote advances a dream that began years ago with three deceased Mercer County lawmakers — Delegates Mike Porter and Eustace Frederick, and Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth. This year’s chief proponent, Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, has already answered the two primary questions facing any toll removal bill — how do you pay for the 88-mile highway’s upkeep, and what happens to displaced workers?
As for the first question, Gearheart points to the creation of two separate funds under the House-advanced legislation to cover maintenance up to 2035, based on the West Virginia Parkways Authority’s own figures of $17.1 million in annual costs.
“There are no money questions,” Gearheart told the Register-Herald in Beckley last week, noting the bill provides for a stream of money based on income from turnpike properties.
He also points to a projected 10 percent increase in turnpike travelers if tolls are removed. And, since three-fourths of the current turnpike users are from out of state, Gearheart correctly notes that ending the tolls in 2020 — when the original turnpike bond indebtedness is paid in full — would encourage more visitors and enhance tourist attractions in southern West Virginia. This could mean increased traffic for attractions such as whitewater rafting, outdoor dramas and even the Hatfield-McCoy Trail.
“When these folks come from out of state, they bring their dollars and we want their dollars,” Gearheart said. “They’re currently discouraged from coming to West Virginia because we want to charge them a fee to cross the border.”
Gearheart adds that southern West Virginians from Charleston south have been exposed to a double tax since 1954, and that the 88-mile toll road is the only place in the state that has built its own highway on a double tax.
We agree. The time to remove this double tax, and this extreme example of discrimination upon the hard-working citizens and business leaders of southern West Virginia, has finally come.
The House-advanced legislation has now been assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee. It is critical that this bill be advanced out of committee, and placed before the full Senate for a vote. And at this point we can’t imagine why a single state senator — Democrat or Republican — would vote against this measure.
All residents of southern West Virginia who are tired of paying tolls should contact their state senators now and demand the passage of the toll removal bill in the state Senate.
For his part, Tomblin has talked in recent days about wanting to wait for the completion of his so-called blue ribbon commission report on roads later this summer before acting on a turnpike tolls bill. But once this measure clears both the House and Senate, any attempt by Tomblin to veto it would be a clear mistake.
We applaud Gearheart and all 97 lawmakers in the House of Delegates who passed this long overdue, common-sense measure. And now we urge all 34 members in the state Senate to do the same.