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Tomblin not sure about $1 billion road bond

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways may have an uphill climb convincing some West Virginians to support a $1 billion bond issue to help fund state roads.

Apparently, that includes the governor himself.

"I'm not sure a bond issue of that magnitude at this time is something we want to get into, but I'll reserve judgment until I see the final report," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Thursday of the commission's recommendation.

The 31-member commission, appointed by the governor about 13 months ago, on Wednesday went over funding recommendations it will submit to Tomblin at the end of the month. That included the $1 billion bond issue, to be financed by continuing tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike for an additional 30 years.

"They've put a great deal of thought and effort into this over the past 12 months," Tomblin said of the commission's work. "I'll be going through each and every page of the report thoroughly, to determine what we'll be asking the Legislature to do."

In addition to the bond proposal, the commission will recommend increasing most Division of Motor Vehicles fees, many of which have been unchanged for 30 years or more, to raise about $77 million a year.

They also endorsed new registration fees of $200 a year for alternative fuel vehicles, and $100 a year for gas/electric hybrids, as well as shifting about $25 million a year in sales taxes to the state Road Fund.

Once the Tomblin administration determines which recommendations to submit to the Legislature in January, the bills likely will be first headed to the Senate Transportation and House Roads and Transportation committees.

House Roads and Transportation Committee Chairwoman Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, said Thursday she's generally supportive of the commission's recommendations.

"I believe the fact we had input from around the state, and this isn't just someone writing bills down in Charleston is important," she said Thursday.

During the summer, the commission conducted nine public hearings around the state, and got nearly 1,400 responses to a survey on ways to fund state highways.

"This is consensus, and agreed on by thinkers and scholars from around the state," she said of the commission's proposals. "I think we'll be able to get something through the Legislature."

Staggers said she supports the concept of a $1 billion road bond, but prefers that it be done through a constitutional amendment as opposed to an action of the state Parkways Authority, as proposed by the commission.

She said she's also not sold on using Turnpike tolls to pay off the bond issue.

"If everybody across the state thinks it's a good idea to keep tolls on the Turnpike, you'd think they'd be just as enthusiastic about tolling a road or bridge that they want fixed in their area," she said.

Staggers noted that the Legislature in 2011 passed a package of DMV fee increases similar to the commission's recommendations by large margins in both houses. Tomblin, running in the special election for governor at the time, vetoed the bill.

Staggers said it's clear states such as West Virginia will have to come up with innovative ways to fund highway construction and maintenance, as federal funding declines.

"It becomes more and more important for us to figure out how to take care of ourselves as the federal dollars dry up," she said, adding, "This is the time to figure it out, because big brother's not going to take care of us anymore."

Senate Transportation Chairman Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Both Staggers and Beach serve as legislative representatives on the Blue Ribbon Commission.

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


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