By PAMELA PRITT
for the Daily Telegraph
An otherwise routine Parkways Authority Board meeting hit some rough road Thursday when Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, spoke to the group under its “call to the public” portion of the meeting.
Gearheart defended the bill he introduced during the 2013 legislative session that would slice $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, as well as all of its assets.
While the bill passed the House of Delegates by a 99-1 margin, Gearheart said, the bill died in the State Senate.
The delegate promised to renew his efforts during the 2014 legislative session.
“I do have a point of view, and I will defend that point of view with vigor,” Gearheart said.
In response to a question about replacing toll revenues, Gearheart said “minds brighter than” his had found the replacement funding. Gearheart said after the meeting that the authority doesn’t need $90 million to operate the turnpike, adding that its ancillary revenue from properties like Tamarack along the turnpike could sustain the authority’s budget. He said he supported tolls on other state roads, including the King Coal Highway.
“If we want new construction, we’re going to have to find creative ways to fund it.”
Gearheart said he wants to ensure that the turnpike is turned over to the state by 2020.
The delegate’s statements during the meeting angered one board member who said every bill in the House passed by a similar margin on the same day as Gearheart’s.
Bill Seaver, a parkways board member from Princeton, went on to say that the only way to stop such political action is to rally parkways employees to vote, and to encourage their families to vote, as well.
Seaver said Gearheart has called parkways employees “lackadaisical” and accused them of not earning their salaries. Seaver said no one on the board had challenged Gearheart before, but he intends to from this point.
“I’m going to stand up,” he said. “It’s not reasonable to do away with these tolls. We have to come up with our own plan.”
After the meeting Seaver called Gearheart’s legislative actions “crazy.” The largest effect of the legislation would be to cut 400 jobs, Seaver said.
“They’re not dealing with the needs of the state,” he continued.
Money from the tolls should be spent in southern West Virginia since that is where the money originates, he said. Seaver pointed to several improvement projects the authority has accomplished, including the Cheylan Bridge and U.S. 19 south of Summersville.
Gearheart said he believes tolls amount to a double-tax for businesses, which pay tax on the fuel they purchase to maintain the roads and then pay tolls for the same purpose.
Gearheart wasn’t finished with the authority, questioning some vegetation removal methods along the turnpike in Mercer County. The delegate said he had a permit to remove vegetation from the right-of-way, and parkways authority employees had not followed the same guidelines required of him, leaving standing stumps and brush pushed into the treeline along the road.
“The state is engaging in what I would be punished for,” Gearheart said. “It doesn’t look very nice.”
Director of Maintenance Engineering Jim Meadows agreed that the leftovers from vegetation removal didn’t look that appealing, but the cost of removing the stumps and chipping the wood was prohibitive. Meadows noted that small saplings will grow and leaf out next spring to hide the debris.
Gearheart responded he merely wants “some kind of equalizing” for both public and private right-of-way maintenance, noting his own permit required stumps to be removed and brush to be chipped.
Meadows said that even if the wood was chipped on-site, the refuse would remain on the right-of-way because of the cost of trucking it to another location.
General Manager Gregory Barr told authority members that Thanksgiving holiday travel was down 7.7 percent from last year. Travelers were not on the turnpike Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, while the latter days of the week were up about 1,900 vehicles.
Barr said severe weather warnings had taken their toll on travel early in the week. “I think those warnings put people off,” he said.
In other business, the authority approved an $829,000 bid from Specialty Groups Inc. to paint the Yeager Bridge over the Kanawha River in Charleston. The bid came in 28 percent lower than the engineer’s estimate, and was fewer than $10,000 under the next lowest bidder. Specialty Groups is a West Virginia company based in Bridgeport. Companies from New York and Florida also bid on the project.
The Parkways Authority also approved spending up to $180,000 for LED lighting and installation of towers in the Charleston area, particularly around MacCorkle Avenue. The move reportedly will save on maintenance costs, since LED lights are projected to last 20 years.