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Privatizing roads becomes issue in governor's race

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the issue of privatizing some state services came up during Tuesday's gubernatorial debate, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Republican challenger Bill Maloney took different roads.

"Privatizing roads is something people have looked at in other states," Maloney said. "There's a lot of things we need to look at that the private sector could probably do better."

While Tomblin called the state's privatization of workers' compensation insurance a success, he was reticent about privatizing other state programs or services. "There are a lot of things government does best," he said.

Asked to elaborate on Maloney's position on privatizing state toll roads, Maloney campaign manager Seth Wimer instead issued a statement saying in part, "We're most interested in privatizing Earl Ray Tomblin. That is our top priority."

Tomblin campaign spokesman Chris Stadelman said Maloney's position on road privatization shows he's out of touch with most West Virginians.

"The idea of selling our roads to for-profit companies is just another sign that Bill Maloney doesn't understand West Virginia, its residents or our state's issues," Stadelman said.

"Gov. Tomblin, as usual, is working with a bipartisan group of experts from around the state to come up with a responsible solution to ensure new highways are built and existing roads are properly maintained," Stadelman said, referring to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways appointed by Tomblin last month. "Bill Maloney thinks the answer is to create more out-of-state millionaires on the backs of West Virginians and our state's visitors."

Tuesday was not the first time Maloney proposed privatizing toll roads.

In an interview with the Beckley Register-Herald in the 2011 special election, Maloney discussed the possibility of privatizing the West Virginia Turnpike. "There might be someone out there who wants to buy that or lease that," he said at the time.

In that interview, Maloney cited the Indiana Toll Road, which is currently the largest private toll road in the U.S. In 2006, a Spanish-Australian consortium paid the state $3.8 billion to lease the 157-mile section of Interstate 80 for 75 years.

The current passenger vehicle cash toll for the 157-mile length of the highway is $9.40, according to the toll road's website -- nearly double the rate before the road was privatized.

In its 2009 report, "Private Roads, Public Costs," the U.S. Public Interest Research Group urged public officials to approach the idea of private roads with caution, advising that the long-term costs of such projects will likely outweigh any short-term benefits.

"Though these privatization deals seem to offer state officials a 'quick fix,' they often pose long-term threats to the public interest," the report said.

Key concerns in the study are states entering into long-term arrangements of 75 to 99 years, assuring that long-term toll revenues will far exceed the value of the roadway, and that, unlike public toll roads, profits are paid to shareholders rather than being applied to other road projects or maintenance.

"Though privatization may seem to offer short-term relief to transportation budget woes, it often has grave implications to the public," the U.S. PRIG report concluded.

Toll roads have been a controversial issue for years. Tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike are a frequent target of criticism for legislators from Mercer and Raleigh counties, who contend the tolls are an unfair tax on residents of those counties.

In the spring of 2011, plans to make U.S. 35 in Putnam and Mason counties a toll road in order to fund the completion of its upgrade to a four-lane highway collapsed in the face of protest from residents of those counties. The road remains unfinished.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

 


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