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$1 billion road bond, increasing tolls among panel's recommendations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A panel created by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to find a way to fund West Virginia's road system finalized its recommendations Thursday, including a bond sale of around $1 billion and increased West Virginia Turnpike tolls for decades to finance the bond sale.

Supporters of the plan on Tomblin's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways say the increased tolls would pass along the cost of road maintenance to out-of-state residents.

"We cannot just ask West Virginians to do this themselves," said Jason Pizatella, chairman of the commission and Tomblin's deputy chief of staff.

The commission's report supports proposals to increase tolls on the Turnpike to generate between $600 million and $1 billion throughout the next 30 years. By selling bonds, the state could use those revenues immediately.

Pizatella noted the proposal would need the support of the governor and the Legislature before the state Parkways Authority, which oversees the Turnpike, could enact it. Tomblin appeared skeptical of the plan to sell $1 billion in road bonds last month.

Brian Helmick, bond counsel for the Parkways Authority, said current interest rates on bonds are between 4.5 percent and 5 percent.

"That is pretty much of an all-time low," Helmick said, although he noted with an improving economy, those rates could rise quickly.

According to the commission's report, 76 percent of all toll revenues collected on the West Virginia Turnpike come from out-of-state passenger and commercial vehicles. Just 16 percent of those toll revenues come from West Virginia passenger cars, and 8 percent from West Virginia commercial vehicles.

Today, passenger cars pay $2 at each of the three toll booths along the 88-mile turnpike between Princeton and Charleston. Pizatella said West Virginia Turnpike toll "costs are low compared to surrounding states and the rest of the United States."

Currently, Turnpike tolls are used to fund operating and maintenance costs, as well as interest payments, only for "turnpike-related requirements." Today, maintenance of the Turnpike costs about $59 million a year.

Under the commission's proposal, the new bonds would finance road maintenance throughout the state.

As for how tolls on the Turnpike might be increased to pay for road bonds, the report specifically looks at current state turnpike systems in Ohio and Pennsylvania:

In Ohio, state legislators increased turnpike tolls by 10 percent in 2013, with 2.7 percent increases scheduled annually between 2014 and 2023.

In Pennsylvania, turnpike tolls were increased by 25 percent in 2009. That Pennsylvania bill also allows additional annual increases based on inflation rates.

Greg Barr, general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, said the "open system" that allows free access to most turnpike entrances "allows a lot of free travel on the Turnpike."

Barr said frequent Turnpike users can also save 35 percent of their toll costs by purchasing E-ZPass cards.

Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, said the majority of local residents oppose any toll increases on the Turnpike.

Pizatella also said, "There is no intention to move the Turnpike away from public employees to privatization," as has happened in some other states.

The commission is also looking at other ways to raise money, including increasing annual vehicle registration fees in West Virginia by $20 million a year.

The state could also shift sales taxes collected from vehicle-related purchases -- such as new batteries or tires -- from the state's General Fund into the state's Road Fund.

The Blue Ribbon Commission previously voted to support a motion from Jan Vineyard, a Commission member and chairwoman of the Legislative and Public Outreach Committee, to deposit all money from a proposed Internet fairness tax into the state Road Fund. That proposed tax would impose state sales taxes on items purchased on the Internet.

West Virginia, Vineyard pointed out, has the sixth-largest state highway system in the nation. In most states, counties and municipalities own and maintain a much higher percentage of roads than they do in West Virginia.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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