Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


August 1, 2013

Turnpike tolls

Chafin, Cole plan merits support

— — Area lawmakers are still correctly working to see that roughly $4 million in turnpike toll revenues are returned to the governing bodies of Mercer, Raleigh, Fayette and Kanawha counties. Their proposal is sound, and merits unanimous support among fellow lawmakers in both the House of Delegates and the Senate.

The issue of returning a portion of all collected turnpike tolls to the four counties that host the 88-mile toll road was discussed last week during the legislative interims in Charleston. The committee is looking at several options relating to the West Virginia Parkways Economic Development and Tourism Authority, and the bonds associated with the toll road that are due to be paid in full come 2019.

But the committee also is looking at Senate Bill 475, which was introduced by Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, and co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, and 15 other lawmakers. The legislation would require the Parkways Authority to transfer one half of 1 percent of the gross revenues it receives from operating the West Virginia Turnpike to the county commissions where the highway is located. That would equate to about $4 million. A committee was created to study the option of dispensing a portion of the turnpike tolls to host counties, according to Chafin. Chafin says the funds could be used for everything from improving emergency service availability and equipment on the roadway to economic development.

“Although the turnpike is being used by people from all over the state, it is the residents of these four counties who have to pay more in tolls and taxes than anyone else and it would be nice for just a little of that money to return for the betterment of their communities,” Chafin said.

The proposal is expected to face legal challenges, including the suggestion that it would be in violation of the original bond convenants. If that is the case, the next step would be waiving or rewriting those convenants, according to Cole. Such a challenge from the Parkways Authority is to be expected, as the turnpike is West Virginia’s sacred cash cow. And without a toll road, there is no need for a Parkways Authority.

We would urge all lawmakers — in both the House and Senate — to support Chafin and Cole’s initiative. It’s a good first step to resolving the unfair turnpike toll burden that residents and business owners in southern West Virginia continue to shoulder.

But it’s just that — a first step. Once the original bond debt is paid in full come 2019 the tolls must be removed and the jurisdiction of the turnpike must be transferred to the West Virginia Division of Highways for maintenance and upkeep.  Any attempt by the Parkways Authority or lawmakers to continue charging for the use of the toll road once the original bonds are paid in full would be unfair to the many motorists who utilize this highway.

In the meantime, lawmakers should spread some of the wealth obtained from the turnpike to the four counties where it is operated.

And members of the Mercer County Commission should start thinking now about how the potential new revenue could be used. A little proactive action on the local level would be helpful this time around.

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