CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A public backlash aimed at the governor’s office for the problems associated with the deeply discounted EZPass for the West Virginia Turnpike prompted the state Parkways Authority to delay the Jan. 1 toll increase until Jan. 15.
The authority held an emergency meeting Monday afternoon in Charleston and voted in favor of a motion to delay a doubling of the tolls at the highway’s three toll plazas for two weeks. The vote to raise the tolls took place last summer.
The authority began selling the $24 three-year unlimited use EZPass on Sept. 25 and workers were able to keep up with the orders until a major spike occurred just before Christmas. The agency’s computer couldn’t handle the orders and a message was put on the website asking people to come in person to the Parkways office to buy their EZPass. That increased the backlog, according to Parkways Authority General Manager Greg Barr.
“That took all of our people to process those applications right away for those people as they came in and they couldn’t work on the backlog,” Barr said.
The lines wrapped around the agency’s headquarters last Wednesday through Friday, increasing each day.
The backlog grew to more than 14,000 applications by last weekend, Barr said. The backlog is made up of applications that came in online, by mail or fax.
Gov. Jim Justice’s Office of Constituency Services began to hear about it with the toll increase set to kick-in Tuesday, Barr said.
“They are fielding all of these people complaining, ‘Hey, the website isn’t working how am I going to get a transponder? I’ve had my transponder on order for two or three weeks and the rates are going up’ we got all of those complaints,” Barr said.
Gov. Justice put out a statement Monday afternoon calling on the Parkways Authority to delay the toll increase.
“I have expressed my deep concerns to the West Virginia Parkways Authority regarding potential traffic delays, backups, and safety on the Turnpike as a result of the planned toll increase on January 1, 2019, and the delay in delivering the transponders in a timely manner,” Justice said.
The Parkways Authority members, several of them appointed by Justice, complied with his request.
Justice released a second statement after the vote.
“I am pleased that my concerns regarding potential traffic delays, backups, and safety on the Turnpike were heard and that the Parkways Authority followed my recommendation and acted in the best interest of the great people of the state of West Virginia. I continue to urge everyone to buy an E-ZPass, and do it soon,” Justice said.
According to the governor’s office as of Monday evening, “over 19,000 applications were outstanding, 14,000 of those are completed and waiting to be mailed, the rest are waiting to be processed. 25,591 E-ZPass orders have already been filled under the new plan. 55,802 transponders were automatically converted to the new $24 plan on September 25, 2018.”
Barr said he’s confident the Parkways staff can cut significantly into the backlog over the next two weeks. The website has been fixed with the help of West Virginia Interactive and the Governor’s Office of Technology. It took in more than 3,500 new applications Monday, Barr said.
Additionally, the authority’s conference room will be outfitted with computers on loan from the West Virginia National Guard to help process the applications.
Barr said, as Gov. Justice mentioned, there’s also a safety concern any time tolls are changed. He said motorists often ask a lot of questions at the toll plazas backing up traffic. He said the backlog of applications could make things worse.
“The chances of a rear end collision at the toll lanes is increased and we don’t want anybody to get hurt and especially an accident occur because we raised tolls and people are stopping to ask questions,” Barr said.
Last Friday, the authority moved the original application deadline for the deeply discounted EZPass from Dec. 31 to Jan. 11. Barr said the tolls will increase on Jan. 15 as long as the technology is working and the transponders are being mailed out. The Parkways Authority next meets on Jan. 10.
Barr said there was no additional cost to delaying the toll increase.
“The only cost is the lost revenue from not doing it. The cost technically of not doing it is not flipping the switch,” he said.
The toll rate for regular passenger vehicles was to double from $2 to $4 at each of the Turnpike’s three toll plazas. A trip from Charleston to Princeton would cost $12 one way.
When the tolls do go up, other vehicle classifications will also see an increase. A passenger vehicle pulling a trailer will pay $5 per toll booth instead of $2.50. Tolls will also double for motor homes and motor homes with trailers.
Commercial vehicle cash rate tolls have also doubled. The rates range from $6.50 to $24.00 per toll plaza depending on the size of the truck. Many commercial carriers have EZpasses which can slice the cash rate anywhere from $1 to $4.
The increased tolls are paying for bonds sold to finance highway construction projects in 10 southern West Virginia counties. The first round of those bonds, $166 million, were sold to investors in mid-August. Barr said at the time, construction is already underway to add additional turning lanes to state Route 10 in Logan, Wyoming and Mercer counties, in which $80 million has been set aside.
He added crews are hopeful to begin work on a 3.8-mile extension road of the King Coal Highway, an $85 million effort.
Additional projects include around $4 million worth of bridge work in Nicholas and Wyoming counties.
Traffic engineers project revenues from the increased tolls will be $330 million, but Barr said if revenues are better than estimates, the state may look into selling additional bonds worth up to $500 million.
“We’ll probably get a read on that by spring of next year,” Barr said in August. “We will have gone through the initial sign-up stages of the single-fee discount program, we will have had three to five months of the new toll rates being in effect, and we’ll be able to get a read on just how well we’re doing compared to what the traffic studies said we’ll do.”
Barr said traffic engineers have typically been conservative in regards to their estimates, which makes him optimistic about possible revenue.
The toll increase, when it goes into effect, will be the first on the 88-mile toll road since 2009 when passenger tolls were increased from $1.25 to $2.00. It had been at the $1.25 rate for about 20 years.
You can enroll online at [www.wvturnpike.com]www.wvturnpike.com or by calling 1-800-206-6222.