CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the state Parkways Authority want assurances the next traffic and revenue study concerning the 88-mile West Virginia Turnpike will be more accurate.
Parkways Authority member Troy Giatras heavily criticized the engineering company CDM Smith during Thursday’s authority meeting in Charleston.
“They cost us money. They cost every West Virginian money. It’s one thing to be conservative and it’s another to be wrong,” Giatras said.
The authority hired CDM Smith last year to conduct a traffic and revenue study as it prepared to raise Turnpike tolls. The study was required in order to sell bonds financed by toll revenues.
CDM Smith said doubling the tolls would cause a 19.6 percent drop in commercial truck traffic. The company also projected the Parkways Authority would sell 830,000 $24 three-year EZ passes. In reality, commercial truck traffic is up one-percent since the tolls doubled and 150,000 EZ passes have been sold.
Parkways members said had CDM Smith been more accurate the agency could have gotten a better deal on the bond market. Parkways sold $172 million in bonds.
“They need to be told they were wrong,” Giatras said.
The authority voted Thursday to rehire CDM Smith for an updated study required with the authority plans to go back to the bond market next February to float another $328 million in bonds for highway projects in 10 southern West Virginia counties. The company will be paid $255,000.
Parkways General Manager Greg Barr said CDM will have to explain why their initial study was way off. He said they believe it was linked to the uniqueness of doubling tolls and having a EZ pass for $8 a year. He said no other states have done that and it was difficult for the engineers to predict the reaction of motorists.
Giatras said CDM learned things from the study that it will use to its advantage in future studies it’s hired to do.
“At the end of the day they got an education and we’re not going to get paid for it,” he said.
Barr said companies that do traffic and revenue studies usually lean toward conservative reports.
“They always build in this cushion and part of their cushion is called diversion and when you double tolls it’s just intuitive and even the bond market and rating agencies would say, ‘Wait a minute you just doubled tolls–you’re going to have to have some diversion,'” Barr said.
But that hasn’t been the case on the Turnpike. Barr said revenues are up 80 percent, approximately $40 million.
Barr said he believes there are a few reasons why commercial traffic has continued to use the Turnpike even with the increases.
“Our prior toll rates didn’t really equate to what’s going on in the marketplace. Our rate per mile was actually a lot lower (than other toll roads),” he said. “Plus the uniqueness of the Turnpike. It’s like a land bridge through the mountains. It’s a shortcut through the mountains.”