Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 6, 2013

Barr: Cost to state to keep turnpike safe without tolls will be $60 million per year

TAMMIE TOLER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

CHARLESTON — Parkways Authority General Manager Greg Barr plans to have the West Virginia Turnpike in good shape by 2019, but he cautioned Mercer County leaders Tuesday that keeping the 88-mile stretch safe without tolls will cost the state approximately $60 million a year.

“The gas tax just doesn't get it done now,” he told a group of more than 40 civic, business and community leaders who converged on the state Capitol for Mercer County Day at the Legislature.

Detailing an infrastructure report he completed for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Blue Ribbon Commission, Barr reported that keeping all sections of the Turnpike on a 12-year paving program will cost $12 million a year, and a massive project to replace deck overlays on the Turnpike's 116 bridges will tally roughly $25 million.

He estimated that routine and non-routine maintenance will  cost approximately $12 million each year, while maintaining equipment will mandate $2 million in spending, while culvert upkeep and drainage repair requires $2 million and pavement striping, guardrails and signage cost a combined $3 million.

“That's where the $59 million comes from,” Barr said.

Currently, Mercer County is home to two members of the Parkways Authority Board of Directors  -- Mike Vinciguerra and Bill Seaver, who has become an outspoken proponent of keeping the tolls in place indefinitely, provided the funds generated benefit southern West Virginia.

Meanwhile, the Mercer County delegation of lawmakers remains opposed to such a move, sponsoring a bill for the second consecutive year to ensure that toll booths become a thing of the past on the interstate that stretches between Princeton and Charleston.

House Bill 2559, which would outline a fund for some Turnpike maintenance, has already cleared the House Road and Transportation Committee and is on its way to the House Finance Committee, where Del. Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, pledged to do everything possible to get it on the agenda. She expects a fight, though.

“Marty and I will have to get it on the agenda,” Phillips, who is vice chair of the Finance Committee, said, referring to Mercer County Del. Marty Gearheart.

The bill, co-sponsored by Gearheart, Phillips, Del. Clif Moore, Del. Joe Ellington, Del. John Shott and a handful of other legislators, would require that all bond debts be satisfied by February 2020, and that the maintenance workers not assigned to travel or welcome centers be absorbed into the workforce of the West Virginia Divison of Highways.

Other Parkways Authority employees will be released to seek jobs as they are available with other state agencies.

Toll funds collected from the time the bonds are paid to the time the tolls are removed will then be used to fund maintenance on the West Virginia Turnpike, until the West Virginia Division of Highways assumes all control and responsibility for the road.

Responding to a question regarding the allocation of federal highway funds that have previously been denied the Turnpike, Barr said he was uncertain whether that funding was included in the equation. He said he doubted the state would ever turn the funds over to the Turnpike, even though the federal government has provided maintenance funding for those 88 miles for decades.

“What you're hearing now is that the state is so strapped for funds - more than ever before,” Barr said. “They didn't give it to us before.”

Researching other states that have toll roads, Barr said, he found that only Delaware allocates federal funds to its toll road, primarily because the only interstate in the tiny state is a toll road.

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While the Parkways Authority segment was among the most animated presentation for Mercer leaders Tuesday, the group also welcomed presentations from Marvin Murphy of the West Virginia Division of Highways, a representative from the West Virginia Department of Education, West Virginia Education Association, Secretary of State Natalie Tenant and more.

The governor briefly joined the session, touting his education reform bill that he promised will not hurt teachers and will help students. He also briefly discussed prison overcrowding and the war against drugs.

Tomblin listed those three challenges as his biggest targets for change this session.

“We've got problems we know of, but we're doing our best to address them,” he said.

Mercer County Day at the Legislature is sponsored by the Greater Bluefield and Princeton-Mercer chambers of commerce.