Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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February 19, 2013

Turnpike toll removal — The time to act is now

Three new bills aimed at ensuring the removal of turnpike tolls by 2019 are being drafted by lawmakers in Charleston. They merit immediate attention and deserve full consideration by lawmakers across the state.

The original bond debts associated with the creation of the 88-mile toll road between Princeton and Charleston are due to be paid in full by 2019. So it goes without saying that the toll booths that continue to serve as an unfair tax burden upon families and business owners across southern West Virginia should be removed at that time as well.

However, a select few are still fighting to keep turnpike tolls intact after the original bond debts are paid in full, including members of the West Virginia Parkways Authority. Without a toll road, the authority itself would no longer exist come 2019 — as maintenance and upkeep of the turnpike would then fall under the jurisdiction of the state Division of Transportation. The Parkways Authority members argue — and it’s a preposterous argument — that the state DOT simply can’t maintain an additional 88 miles of roadway. Keep in mind that the DOT already is responsible for the regulation and maintenance of 34,000 miles of state roads. So adding an additional 88 miles will certainly not break the camel’s back, or send the DOT and the state into bankruptcy court.

Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, is drafting two bills aimed at not only removing all turnpike tolls, but also precluding the Parkways Authority from future borrowing secured by turnpike tolls. Gearheart’s legislation also seeks to identify a new funding source for maintenance of the turnpike by the Division of Highways.

Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, has also proposed a bill to discontinue all toll collection facilities on the turnpike before Feb. 1, 2020. And Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, is promising to support whatever final bill or bills make it to the full House as long as they advocate the removal of all tolls by 2019.

Republicans, who now control 46 of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates, are in a unique position this year to help advance a final turnpike toll bill at the urging of fellow party members Gearheart, Sumner, Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, and Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer. But the removal of turnpike tolls shouldn’t be viewed as a partisan issue. Instead, it is a necessary and common-sense measure that both Democrats and Republicans alike should be able to agree on, as correctly argued by Moore.

We see no reason why a turnpike toll removal bill shouldn’t advance and pass both the House and Senate this year.

Yes, we realize that the 88-mile turnpike is a sacred cash cow for the state of West Virginia, and the Parkways Authority in particular. And we know there are some in Charleston who still apparently don’t want to lose these dollars.

But when the original bonds are paid in full in 2019, the Parkways Authority cannot — and must not — be allowed to continue to force the citizens and business owners of southern West Virginia to pay for a debt that is paid in full.

That’s why lawmakers must act now and pass common-sense legislation to remove tolls by 2019.

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