for the Daily Telegraph
Ending one of the “most extreme examples of discrimination” by abolishing tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike in seven years came closer to reality Wednesday in the House of Delegates.
In a 97-1 vote, the chamber sent to the Senate its bill that culminated a push that began even before the tolls were increased four years ago for the first time since 1981.
This year’s chief proponent, Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, in fact, began his pitch by recalling how three deceased lawmakers — Delegates Mike Porter and Eustace Frederick, and Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, all from Mercer County — began that crusade.
“I see some smiles from Heaven,” Gearheart exulted, just before the overwhelming vote on the last day the House could act on its own bills.
Gearheart insisted the bill adequately answers two chief questions — how do you pay for the 88-mile highway’s upkeep, and what happens to displaced workers?
As for the first one, Gearheart explained the creation of two separate funds to cover maintenance up to 2035, based on the West Virginia Parkways Authority’s own figures of $17.1 million in annual costs.
“There are no money questions,” he insisted, noting the bill provides for a stream of money based on income from Turnpike properties.
Besides that, he said, a study showed when tolls were hiked that the road would lose 10 percent. Conversely, the delegate said, if tolls were rolled back to the 2009 levels, you add 10 percent more riders.
And, since three-fourths of the users hail from out of state, Gearheart said ending the tolls would encourage more visitors, enhancing tourist attractions in southern West Virginia — from whitewater rafting to outdoor dramas to the Hatfield-McCoy Trail.
“When these folks come from out of state, they bring their dollars and we want their dollars,” he said.
“They’re currently discouraged from coming to West Virginia because we want to charge them a fee to cross the border. Folks, southern West Virginians from Charleston south have been exposed to a double tax since 1954. However, we did so willingly. We’re the only place in the state that has built its own highway on double tax.”
Delegate Danny Wells, D-Kanawha, representing one of the four counties that border the Princeton-to-Charleston road, maintained the state cannot afford to ship it to the DOH.
“The DOH is in pretty bad shape already,” said Wells, the lone delegate to vote against HB3163.
“The DOH in no way can afford to take over funding of this Turnpike debt.”
While Republican lawmakers took the lead in the bill, Democrats made sure they weren’t left out.
“You all think this is a Republican bill,” said Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette. “This is a southern West Virginia bill.”
Staggers said southern West Virginia residents have no choice but to ride the Turnpike and shell out dollars each time they do.
“There is no way any sane person would drive from Bluefield to Charleston on any alternative road,” she said.
As chair of the House Roads and Transportation Committee, she sought to hike the speed limit between Mossy and Chelyan from 60 to 70 mph, noting parkways officials insisted that stretch is too dangerous to drive faster than the existing speed.
“All this money for years and years certainly has been made to make this road safe enough to Interstate standards,” she said.
Back in 2009, Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, along with Porter and Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, stood off the edge of the Turnpike to protest higher tolls.
Moore took his cue from a hit song, and asked, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” then answered, “It’s been going on too long.”
“Let’s end it now,” he said.
“Let’s end it today. And require the turnpike authority to live up to their promises.”
Two Raleigh County lawmakers — Delegates Linda Sumner and John O’Neal, both Republicans — rose to support the bill.
Sumner pointed to the 1954 opening of the road to national acclaim as a “modern miracle” and said the original construction bonds have long since been retired.
The authority remains in debt some $65 million for expansion to a four-lane highway.
“This is the time to remove this burden from our drivers,” she added.
O’Neal said the idea of installing tolls to finance the road was sound policy and this approach might be needed elsewhere in the state, but voters must be assured that promises for ending them at construction’s completion need to be kept.
“It’s going to be very difficult to persuade voters to support tolls for building roads if we’re not going to keep our commitment to removing tolls when roads are built,” he added.
Shott said one high school principal told him it took $700 to pay tolls to get his girls basketball team to games outside its home base in one year.
Imposing tolls on the southern region is “one of the most extreme examples of discrimination out there today,” Shott declared.
“How long are we going to allow this discrimination to continue? It’s been going on nearly 60 years now.”
The measure likely faces a tougher challenge in the Senate, and even if it clears then, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has said it might be “premature,” since a special blue ribbon panel he appointed to look at road needs won’t file its report until summer.