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GOP delegate calls highway commission 'colossal failure'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It will be more than a week before the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways gives final approval to its recommendations for ways to fund West Virginia's road system, but at least one legislator is already denouncing its work as a "colossal failure."

Delegate Marty Gearhart, R-Mercer, issued a two-page statement Monday denouncing the commission's recommendations -- particularly a proposal to issue $1 billion in road bonds, to be repaid by keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike for 30 more years.

"It's a little bit of a punch in the throat to the House of Delegates, which passed a bill last session to eliminate the tolls," he said.

A perennial bill in the House, the most recent version of legislation calling for Turnpike tolls to be eliminated once the current bonds are paid off in 2019 passed the House on a 97-1 vote on April 4. The bill was never taken up in the Senate.

Gearhart said he was disappointed that the 31-member commission, made up of representatives of business, labor, tourism, building contractors, academics and legislators, were unable after a year of study to come up with more innovative ways to fund state roads.

"What was billed as a gathering of the best and brightest minds in our state to determine needs, efficiencies and innovative means of paying for any potential additional needs in our highway system has failed in its advertised mission and appears to be a thinly veiled mechanism to heap additional costs on the backs of West Virginians in the name of a contrived crisis," Gearhart said in his statement.

He called the proposal to use Turnpike tolls to finance a $1 billion road bond "simplistic."

"It looks like they said, 'We have one toll road in the state, so we only have one revenue stream we can leverage,'" Gearhart said Monday.

In recommending the Turnpike bond issue -- modeled after a $1.5 billion turnpike road bond plan going forward in Ohio -- commission Chairman Jason Pizatella noted that out-of-state vehicles account for 76 percent of toll revenues, therefore the state highway system is effectively subsidized by nonresidents.

Pizatella also is chief counsel to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Commissioners also cited surveys conducted at public hearings this summer -- including majorities at hearings in Beckley and Princeton -- which found 78 percent of participants favored keeping tolls on the Turnpike to fund other highway projects.

Gearhart, however, said he believes a vast majority of residents of Mercer and Raleigh counties oppose extending tolls on the Turnpike.

"Most of the folks I've talked to indicate they would be close to mutiny over that," he said.

Gearhart said he's not convinced the funding gap to build and maintain highways is as severe as the $1.3 billion a year that consultants for the commission cited.

"I'm not certain we have a billion-dollar problem," he said.

He said he also was disappointed the commission took highways officials at their word that they had enacted cost efficiencies, including a 10 percent reduction in personnel, saving more than $100 million a year.

Gearhart said the commission should have had an outside auditor review the Division of Highways' operations to determine if additional efficiencies and cost savings could be achieved.

Gearhart also called the assertion that the commission's recommendations will not require higher taxes "a massive deception," since Turnpike tolls, combined with increases in various DMV charges and fees to raise an additional $77 million a year, will impose a burden on state taxpayers, particularly those in Southern West Virginia.

He noted that when Tomblin was campaigning in Bluefield in the 2011 special election for governor, he was quoted as saying he favored repealing the tolls in 2019, stating, "That's a promise that needs to be made eight years from now. The tolls need to come down."

Under current law, Turnpike tolls would not automatically expire once the bonds are retired. The highways commissioner would have to accept the Turnpike into the state road system if he determines the it is in good condition and determines the division has adequate funds to take over its maintenance and operations.

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


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