Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 2, 2013

House votes on Turnpike toll bill Wednesday

By MANNIX PORTERFIELD
for the Daily Telegraph

CHARLESTON — A vote comes Wednesday in the House of Delegates on legislation intended to dismantle the toll booths on the West Virginia Turnpike  and “unleash the beast of the economy” in southern counties.

Retooled by the House Finance Committee, the new version closely mirrors the original HB2559, offered early on in the session by Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer.

The idea is to create new pools of money and ship the 88-mile toll highway from the West Virginia Parkways Authority over to the Division of Highways, removing tolls in 2020 — or one year after outstanding bond debt is scheduled to be satisfied.

“Essentially, it prohibits the parkways from borrowing money secured by tolls and removes the tolls a year after the bonds are paid,” Gearheart said Monday, as the revised measure, HB3163, was read for a first time.

All House bills must clear that chamber by Wednesday, known in legislative parlance as “crossover day.”

Gearheart said the bill answers all questions raised by the authority in recent months as lawmakers accelerated a drive to get the tolls removed seven years from now.

Southern residents have paid tolls since the Princeton-to-Charleston highway opened in 1954.

“It keeps the highway maintained in an appropriate fashion to be accepted as part of the Interstate system,” said Gearheart, a leading proponent in recent sessions of bills meant to halt toll collections.

Gearheart said the bill strips money from the authority down to $5 million to be applied to future maintenance.

“It already exists,” he said, when asked about the source of the $5 million.

“It’s held by the parkways now. They probably hold $100 million currently. Go look at their financial statement. They’ve got a lot of money, and they’ve got another seven years (under the bill) for accumulation.”

Using Parkways Authority figures, Gearheart said the governing board insists that it spends $23 million annually on maintenance costs, “which is about 20 times what the DOH spends for maintaining the same circumstance of roads.”

Gearheart quoted Turnpike Manager Greg Barr as saying it will take $59 million to maintain the road.

“So, there’s a differential between the financial statement and the numbers he is purporting for maintenance in the future,” the delegate said.

“We believe it will take less than the $23 million by the DOH, and based on the tolls that will be swept away and the income flow from the ancillary services on the Turnpike, it will be fully maintained until 2035 with an income flow of about $6 million to $7 million.”

Gearheart said the latter figure will be buttressed with $15 million the federal government is sending West Virginia for Interstate maintenance.

“So, it should be fully maintained with no problem,” he said.

Gearheart said 25 percent of the tolls collected from the time the bonds are paid off until the booths come down will go into a fund to defray maintenance.

Another major objection by the Parkways Authority has been that Turnpike employees would be thrown out of work.

“We’ve got a situation put together where these employees are going to be offered jobs in state government to maintain their employment,” he said.

“We’ve taken care of the employees and we’ve taken care of future funding. We’re removing the tolls, which I believe will unleash the beast of the economy in southern West Virginia.”