By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A committee appointed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to look at ways to raise revenue for road maintenance and repair is recommending an increase in turnpike tolls.
The toll increase, along with increased Division of Motor Vehicle fees and an annual fee that would apply to electric and natural gas vehicles, are among the preliminary recommendations being considered by Tomblin’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways.
But recommending another turnpike toll increase would place a further financial burden on citizens and business owners in southern West Virginia, Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said Thursday after learning of the preliminary recommendations.
“I am disappointed that we didn’t consider first savings that might be enjoyed out of stream-lining operations out of the DOH,” Cole said. “That wasn’t even considered. We would like to see the tolls go away. While that may not truly be realistic in our lifetime, to suggest that we need to raise them dramatically is putting the burden of the state’s infrastructure improvements too much upon the south.”
Legislation that would end tolls along the 88-mile turnpike passed the House by a vote of 97-1 earlier this year, but was killed in the Senate when senators suggested the House action to remove tolls was premature because the Blue Ribbon Commission had not yet issued its final recommendations at that time.
Cole said the commission’s preliminary recommendations have not yet ruled out legislation he jointly co-sponsored earlier this year with Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo. That legislation would have required the Parkways Authority to transfer one half of 1 percent of the gross revenues it receives from operating the West Virginia Turnpike to the county commissions where the highway is located. That revenue would equate to about $4 million.
And the draft regulations reported Thursday are just that — preliminary suggestions that are not final, according to Marc Meachum, a local member of the Blue Ribbon Commission and president and chief executive officer of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce.
Meachum said the final recommendations won’t be made until the commission’s Sept. 19 meeting in Charleston. But the preliminary findings suggest that tolls shouldn’t be raised on the turnpike for at least five years, and that those who use the turnpike’s EZ Pass system also would not see a rate increase, Meachum said.
“There is still a lot of those details to work out,” Meachum said. “The next meeting would be the finalization of those recommendations.”
Once the commission makes it final recommendations, they will then be forwarded to Tomblin, who in return may propose related legislation, Meachum said. Tomblin’s proposals would then be presented to the Legislature next year, or the governor could call a special session later this year to tackle the suggestions, Meachum said.
The existing turnpike bonds are due to be paid in full by 2019. Southern West Virginia lawmakers argue that all tolls should be removed by that time.