By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Area lawmakers are urging the Senate’s leadership to allow a bill that would eventually eliminate tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike to go through the committee process and ultimately the full Senate for a vote.
House Bill 3165 was recently transferred to the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee after the House passed it by a vote of 97-1. If passed into law, the bill would end turnpike tolls by 2020.
“At this moment, the Senate leadership has elected not to advance it,” Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph Monday morning. “It’s just not going to be put on the agenda in transportation (transportation committee).
Cole said that he and Sen. H. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, were “working hard to get the leadership to support it and allow it to go through the committee process so the full Senate can vote on it.
Cole said he supported the toll removal bill.
“This is a fairness bill, and it’s not fair to tax the people of southern West Virginia with it,” Cole said. “I’m 100 percent for losing the tolls, one way or another.”
Chafin said that he and the late Don Caruth (former senator from Mercer County) worked for years to have the tolls removed. In an effort to help counties benefit from turnpike revenue, he recently introduced a bill — SB 475 — with Cole that would give $1 million a piece to Mercer, Raleigh, Fayette and Kanawha counties. The turnpike runs through these four counties, and the funds would be used for economic development.
“I have studied it very carefully and I believe this bill has the best benefits right now in the short term for Mercer County and the three other counties through which it travels,” Chafin said. “One approach we could take is to insert provisions of 475 into the House bill.”
However, Chafin added that any action the Legislature takes this year on the turnpike could not bind legislators in future sessions. They and a future governor could undo a bill impacting tolls.
Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, said he did not believe the turnpike bill would come out of the Senate this year. He had an idea for helping West Virginia residents avoid the expense of tolls while the state retained the money paid by out-of-state travelers.
Under Hall’s proposal, state residents would purchase an EZ Pass at the start of the year, then get a dollar-per-dollar tax credit at the end of the year.
By the end of the year, residents would get back the turnpike money they had paid.
“I just think that’s the only way to make it fair for southern West Virginia,” he said.