By MANNIX PORTERFIELD
Ever since the West Virginia Turnpike opened back in 1954, then a two-lane highway dubbed by one national magazine as “a modern miracle,” much has changed.
But one constant has been a thorn in the side of southern motorists: Paying those annoying tolls to use it.
That could all change in seven years, if Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, aided by sympathetic colleagues from the southern coalfields all the way into both of West Virginia’s two panhandles, has his way.
As the lead sponsor of a new House bill, Gearheart is calling for an end to the tolls in legislation that would compel the West Virginia Parkways Authority to clean up all of its red ink by Feb. 1, 2020. And then, the 88-mile toll road, running from Princeton to Charleston, would fall into the hands of the Division of Highways.
Under terms of a bond agreement, the Parkways Authority cannot satisfy its outstanding debt early, but Gearheart’s bill calls for an absolute full payment in seven years.
That is the thrust of one of his bills, but a second one, carrying far more weight, would not only see to it that bonds are retired but sets a drop-dead time to dismantle the toll booths — six months after the authority is fully in the black.
In that half-year span, half of the tolls that accumulate would be dedicated to Turnpike maintenance, Gearheart explained.
“Then it would dedicate flow from the rental revenues and so forth in the service areas to future maintenance,” he said.
“The next thing it does is it takes employees from the Parkways Authority, other than toll takers — the maintenance people, the sign shops, and so on — and transfers them to the Division of Highways. For those people, their jobs are secure.”
That would leave toll collectors in the lurch. But Gearheart says that shouldn’t pose a major difficulty.
“If we pass the bill, and it’s 2013 now, it gives those people seven years to be prepared,” he said.
What’s more, the delegate said, there likely will be a high number of them who retire over that seven-year span.
The bulk of the Turnpike’s workers would simply move into a new state agency.
“My bill does require the Parkways Authority to have the highway in a condition to be accepted by the DOH, and it requires the DOH to accept it,” he said.
“It answers the two main arguments I had against the bill last year in committee: Where do you get money for maintenance, and what about the people that work there.”
Tolls have been a source of chagrin to southern travelers for decades, and sentiments hit a boiling point four years ago when the Parkways Authority imposed the first increase since 1981 — hiking the per-plaza cost for cars from $1.25 to $2. In response to a backlash, the authority set up a series of discounts, led by the E-ZPass system.
Gearheart says the toll is nothing more than a form of double taxation to the frequent users.
“We pay the same gas tax that everyone else does to fund the highways as well as fund travel on the Turnpike,” he said.
A study performed for the Parkways Authority indicated ridership would fall 10 percent if tolls were increased, he noted.
“My contention is that if you roll them back to the original place you get a gain of 10 percent in ridership,” Gearheart said.
“Conservatively, if you roll them all the way off, you would gain another 10 percent. That’s 20 percent more travelers on the highway. One argument is that 80 percent is out-of-state money. We’d have 16 percent more out of state people on the Turnpike than we have now by rolling the tolls back.”
Gearheart says the authority is spending $200,000 per mile in maintenance, and that would be sliced in half once the DOH assumes responsibility.
By his own estimation, the DOH wouldn’t have to use any of its own money for maintenance until 2035.
Another source of contention among Turnpike critics is that the federal government sends money annually to the state to maintain Interstate highways, including the toll road, but this has always been spent on other roads.
One concern among some residents is the ability of the DOH to keep the Turnpike free of ice and snow, given its 36,000-mile responsibility across West Virginia.
“People have anecdotal evidence all the time as to whether it’s better or worse with regard to maintenance than the rest of the roads in West Virginia,” Gearheart said.
Yet, a few winters ago, Gearheart recalled that he was trapped for 19 hours on the Turnpike with hundreds of fellow travelers when a massive snowstorm blanketed the southern region.
“They (authority) were not able to maintain it then,” he said.
Joining Gearheart in his legislation were Delegates Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, and Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, representing the Eastern and Northern Panhandles, respectively, and Delegates Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, Clif Moore, D-McDowell, Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, John Shott, R-Mercer, Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, and Suzette Raines, R-Kanawha.