Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 8, 2013

Unfair burden: Time to strip tolls from W.Va. Turnpike

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— Southern West Virginia motorists routinely commute north on the West Virginia Turnpike in order to work, shop, visit relatives or visit the state capitol. Businesses shipping goods or providing services travel back and forth along I-77. The highway provides ready access to other parts of the state and beyond.

Unfortunately, drivers have to pay for this convenience. There are toll booths from Charleston to Flat Top, and motorists have to spend $2 at each one. This isn’t a large sum of money, but it adds up quickly for regular commuters and shippers. It is an added expense other West Virginia drivers do not have to worry about.

Whether to remove the turnpike tolls has been debated in the Legislature for years. Some of southern West Virginia’s representatives have been calling for end of the tolls and reorganizing the West Virginia Parkway Authority.

During a recent authority meeting, Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, defended a bill he introduced at the 2013 legislative session that would cut $90 million from the authority’s budget by eliminating tolls, forbid the authority from borrowing money and transfer the authority’s powers to the West Virginia Division of Highways. Gearheart said while the bill passed the House of Delegates by a 99-1 vote, it died in the state Senate.

Gearheart said he plans to renew his efforts in 2014. When asked about replacing the funding, Gearheart said the authority does not need $90 million to operate the turnpike, and that revenue from properties like Tamarack could maintain the authority’s budget.

Removing the turnpike tolls would be a boon to southern West Virginia’s residents. The move would add more money to household budgets and improve the bottom line of businesses that depend on the turnpike for transportation.

No other place in the state requires motorists to pay for the privilege of using an interstate highway. Gearheart said he supported tolls on other state roads, including the King Coal Highway. If this move was implemented, then state motorists and visitors would be sharing the cost of maintaining highways.

Bill Seaver, a parkways board member from Princeton, said doing away with the tolls was not reasonable. The money generated from tolls should be spent in southern West Virginia since it originates there, he said. Seaver pointed out improvement projects such as the Cheylan Bridge and U.S. 19 south of Summersville.

When Seaver was appointed to the parkways authority board several years ago, it was hoped that he would be a strong voice for the people of Mercer County and their best interests. Most of Mercer County’s residents and businesses do not like paying these tolls. In the past, Seaver has said that losing the tolls would be a “huge tragedy” for the state.

It is difficult to see how losing this financial burden would be a tragedy for the people of southern West Virginia. Relief from this burden would be a great victory that would ease financial burdens and stimulate local economies by making more money available in local households.

We know the turnpike toll revenue has become a sacred cash cow for the state of West Virginia, but the toll’s primary purpose was to pay off the debt incurred when the turnpike was built. Well, the turnpike’s original bonds are scheduled to be paid off in 2019. The tolls should end when the debt is paid in full.

Southern West Virginia’s residents and businesses should not be expected to keep spending money on a highway that has been paid off. In these tight economic times, it is unfair to leave that burden in place. It is time to bring the era of West Virginia Turnpike tolls to an end.