Blue Ribbon panel goes with toll plan to finance future road work

CHARLESTON, W.Va — The governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways voted Thursday to support a proposal to keep tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike for years to come to finance as much as $1 billion in other highway projects across the state.

The toll-bond proposal is one of several included in the panel’s final report heading to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for his consideration.

The current bonds paying for the 88-mile Turnpike through southern West Virginia are due to be paid off in 2019 but the proposal would sell new bonds and use the money not only to upkeep the Turnpike but to finance dozens of other projects.

Blue Ribbon chair Jason Pizatella pointed out the plan is just a proposal and would need the support of the governor and the legislature before the Parkways Authority implemented it.

Pizatella said the Turnpike is a great asset and it makes sense to continue to use it in that way.

The Parkways Authority told the Blue Ribbon group that 75 percent of the toll revenue is paid by out of state residents. Blue Ribbon member Tom Witt said that’s a convincing argument.

“It would appear that over a period of time, probably if we continue with the current toll structure, the debt retirement would be paid for predominately by out of state motorists,” Witt said.

The recommendation going to the governor says the current E-ZPass rates would stay in effect for at least five years and a portion of the bond money, $250 million, would go to the four counties where the Turnpike is located, Mercer, Raleigh, Fayette and Kanawha counties, to be spent on road projects.

Pizatella said both Ohio and Pennsylvania have implemented similar plans to meet their future road construction needs. Both states have toll increases worked into their formulas for the next 10 years. Ohio’s plan would increase tolls 10 percent initially and 2.7 percent a year for 10 years. In Pennsylvania, tolls will go up 25 percent initially and then annually according to inflation. The West Virginia plan also proposes increasing tolls.

Supporters said bond market interest rates remain low at 4.5 to 5 percent but the window of opportunity could close quickly as the economy improves.

The Blue Ribbon’s report also includes money savings through the state Department of Transportation and proposals to raise fees within the state Division of Motor Vehicles that could bring in $77 million. The panel will also promote a new video to show state residents the state’s highway needs.

Gov. Tomblin formed the Blue Ribbon panel to make recommendations after several stagnant years of highway funding in West Virginia. Gasoline tax revenues have leveled off and the state isn’t getting as much highway money as it used to from the federal government.

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