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Lawmakers Hear From Turnpike in Wake of Toll Rate Freeze

Wed March 22, 2006 - Northeast Edition
CEG



CHARLESTON, WV (AP) The state agency that runs the West Virginia Turnpike is still coming to grips with the outrage over its decision to hike toll rates, and with the judge’s ruling recently that rolled back those increases, its general manager told lawmakers Feb. 16.

“Our board is kind of absorbing and digesting where we are now, and what the Legislature has been discussing,” said Greg Barr of the Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority.

Barr also told the House Finance Committee that the authority has made no plans to appeal Feb. 13’s decision by Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene Berger freezing the higher toll rates that motorists had been paying since Jan. 1.

Approximately one-third of the $24 million expected from the increases annually was slated to fund maintenance on the 88-mi. toll road between Charleston and Princeton. That backlog of paving, bridge repairs and other projects still must be done, Barr said.

“I can assure you that the needs have not gone away,” Barr said. “They are still there and they are real.”

The authority voted in December to increase the rates at each toll booth from $1.25 to $2 for passenger cars and from $4.25 to $7 for five-axle commercial trucks. Before the increases, the authority expected tolls would generate approximately $57 million during the budget year ending June 30. It had collected approximately $3 million from the increases before Berger’s ruling froze them, Barr said.

The rate hikes also were meant to cover a new $55-million interchange at Shady Spring and a $62-million project to widen 8 mi. between U.S. Route 19 and the Interstate 64 split in Beckley. The Senate advanced a bill (SB557) to the House on Feb. 15 that would repeal 2004 legislation requiring the authority to commit to the Shady Spring project before it could issue any construction bonds.

The tumult over the rate hikes has prompted several other measures, including at least one that would dismantle the authority. Another would require a series of public hearings before any future rate changes. Berger granted the temporary injunction after concluding that the authority did not give sufficient public notice before voting on the hikes at its Dec. 14 meeting.

While disagreeing with the judge’s finding, Barr said the authority has taken it to heart.

“The parkways authority will be much more receptive, and aggressive in obtaining the public’s confidence,” he said.

But Barr still fielded criticism from several lawmakers, including Delegate Sally Susman. The Raleigh County Democrat, whose husband is an authority board member, said its handling of the rate hikes caught the district’s lawmakers unaware.

“I think you have done a great disservice to the entire delegation,” Susman said.

Delegate Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, said the furor over the tolls will make it more difficult to increase funds for other state roads. Browning is executive director of the Coalfield Expressway Authority.

“Do you see the position your board put us in?” Browning asked.

Lawmakers also are calling for the turnpike to tear down its toll booths. But Barr touted the tolls as an alternative to the fuel-related taxes that form the bulk of funding for the state Division of Highways. South Carolina, for instance, authorized tolls Feb. 13 to build an interstate. More than a dozen eastern states have them including Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“More and more states are looking to toll roads as a solution to the dwindling revenue for their roads,” Barr said. “Gas taxes have become a kind of dinosaur.”