Senate Leaders Eye Eliminating W.Va. Turnpike Tolls

Fri March 27, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Lawrence Messina



CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) A desire to demolish the tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike has united the state Senate’s Democratic and Republican party chiefs.

Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, and Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, co-sponsored a package of bills introduced March 11 that would end the Charleston-Princeton route’s days as a toll road in 2020.

Their bid coincides with the revelation that the turnpike has long qualified for federal dollars but has yet to receive any.

Its 88 mi. were added to the formula for federal funding and have been bringing in about $10 million a year, but no one realized the state was allowed to use that money for the turnpike. That doesn’t mean all $10 million is supposed to go there, but nothing has stopped the state from spending some of it on the turnpike.

“That’s new news to us, too,’’ said Matt Turner, a spokesman for Gov. Joe Manchin. “It’s not something we’ve been harboring.’’

Manchin has asked his Division of Highways to examine relaying federal funding to the turnpike. But the governor also cited the money already received by the turnpike’s host counties for their other roads, and questioned whether they could end up with an unfair share of total highway spending.

The federal funding discovery, and March 11’s bills, ratchet up the debate over the turnpike’s future just as its parent agency launches a bid to hike the tolls. The Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority estimates it has deferred at least $178 million worth of maintenance and repair projects for lack of funds.

Caruth’s questioning of highways officials ferreted out the funding revelation. The turnpike runs through both his district and Chafin’s, and he faults the authority for either not pursuing federal funding or knowing it was available.

“We have the worst road in the state, down there,’’ Caruth said. “The responsibility ultimately falls on Parkways.’’

Agency officials did not respond to a request for comment March 11.

The main measure would abolish the tolls one year after their revenue is scheduled to pay off construction bonds. A second bill would make the turnpike keep that timetable, while a third would bar any new debt. The final part of the package would require annual legislative audits of the parkways authority.

“As long as it’s possible to do this, I think it’s very important,’’ Caruth said of the four bills.

Caruth and Chafin also plan to co-sponsor a bill that would divert federal stimulus dollars to fund turnpike repairs. The turnpike did not make the list of more than 100 projects that the state plans to pursue with its estimated $210 million share of stimulus highway money.

Turner said Parkways likely didn’t pursue federal funding because it had been fairly self-sufficient. But besides facing rising road materials costs, and a decline in vehicle travel, the agency also branched out into tourism and economic development efforts for much of the past two decades.

Those additional efforts include Tamarack, the arts and crafts showplace near Beckley. While it provides a marketplace for state artisans and generates millions in sales, it requires an annual subsidy from Parkways that topped $2.3 million last year.

Manchin stripped the agency of its non-road duties and pledged to transfer Tamarack to the Department of Commerce following a highly critical 2007 financial audit of the authority.

The turnpike’s tolls haven’t been successfully raised since 1981, partly because of public sentiment. A lawsuit scuttled the agency’s last attempt in 2006. The turnpike charges between $1.25 and $6.00, depending on the size of the vehicle, at each of its four interstate toll barriers.