Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

WV State News

February 13, 2014

Mercer County Day at the Legislature continues despite winter weather

CHARLESTON — Snow doesn’t stop the political process, and frightening forecasts couldn’t keep a delegation of local leaders away from Mercer County Day at the Legislature.

Though the potential for up to a foot of snow kept some annual participants parked at home, approximately 30 representatives of Mercer County businesses, municipalities and governing bodies converged on the Capitol to focus attention on issues that affect everyone south of Beckley.

Turnpike tolls — traditionally a hot topic — again led the agenda.

West Virginia Parkways Authority General Manager Greg Barr braved the audience that hasn’t always been friendly to release the findings of a recent review by the state’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division. The study included a comprehensive look at the Parkways Authority’s operation, road management, Tamarack subsidy, contracts, employee investment, etc. — all to determine the impact on I-77, the state, the Parkway employees and tourism if the Turnpike were turned over to the West Virginia Division of Highways upon payment of the existing bonds.

Currently, the debt on the 88 miles of road that runs between Princeton and Charleston is slated to be paid in full in May 2019. Until that time, the Parkways Authority must continue paying $11 million annually to make good on the debt.

According to law on the books now, the Division of Highways will be obligated to take over operation and maintenance of those 88 miles, toll-free, just like every other interstate and U.S. highway that runs through the state of West Virginia. It’s an obligation the DOH has repeatedly said it cannot handle with that burden without toll funding.

“One of their conclusions was that the cost to operate the Turnpike as a toll-free road in 2019 would be $30 million, using the Division of Highways’ current maintenance and capital expenditures they are using on all the other interstates in West Virginia,” Barr said.

The Blue Ribbon Commission Committee asked Barr the same thing previously, and he estimated that cost to be $59 million.

“The PERD authors tried to get into comparing apples to apples and some of the differences between the Parkway Authority and the Division of Highways, but they basically went with, ‘What’s the DOH spending right now? Let’s just use that number,’” Barr said. “But, what you have to keep in mind is that the DOH is woefully underfunded right now for transportation funding.”

The Parkway manager reported that the Blue Ribbon study indicated the DOH needs $400 million a year just to maintain the highways they currently operate. To improve infrastructure would reportedly require an additional $400 million annually, bringing the DOH needs to $800 million – without including the Turnpike.

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