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Alternate funding options still possible for U.S. 35

WINFIELD, W.Va. -- In 2010, things seemed to be moving forward on the road to completing U.S. 35 -- Putnam and Mason counties had agreed to install tolls to help fund the highway, and federal bonds would help pay for the remainder of the $187 million project.

Three years later, a 14.6-mile stretch of the unfinished four-lane is unfunded, and the interchange that connects the new U.S. 35 with the old U.S. 35 near the Buffalo Bridge has proven both dangerous and deadly for drivers.

Brent Walker, state Division of Highways spokesman, said there is still hope for the project. The DOH has maintained its right-of-way land purchases in the area and is still seeking alternate funding for the highway.

"We're still trying to look for ways to fund that," he said. " ... We're still buying up property, because we don't want to lose that alignment."

Then-Gov. Joe Manchin requested the DOH look into "creative funding" for the project, Walker said, and the agency determined that the construction could be funded through two avenues: the sale of Grant Anticipated Revenue Vehicle bonds, which would allow them to spend federal money that they would expect to receive in the future, and the installation of tolls.

Walker said GARVEE bonds alone could not fully fund U.S. 35, which is why the DOH requested both county commissions approve tolling for the road. Both did, but Walker said backlash for the proposal prompted Mason County officials to rescind their decision.

"Who likes tolls? No one is going to say, 'hooray, tolls,' but what they said was that they supported the completion of U.S. 35, even if it meant tolling," Walker said. "In order for us to go the tolling bond route, the Legislature said we would need to get support from both county commissions.

"I'm not sure people believed that we truly didn't have funding for it; they though it was out there and we just weren't looking hard enough or there was another way, so we were forced to pull it."

The original estimates projected the tolls would cost $2 per stop for non-commercial drivers and $8 for commercial truck drivers, and yearly EZ Passes would cost roughly $200 for access to both booths. Plans placed one toll booth in Mason County, about five miles outside of Point Pleasant, between 3-Mile Creek Road and 5-Mile Creek Road, and the other in Putnam County between Tucker Branch North and Tucker Branch South.

In July 2010, a mother and infant were killed after their car collided with a semi-truck near the Buffalo Bridge interchange. In May, a tractor-trailer overturned and spilled the disinfectant chemical glutaraldehyde, and one tractor-trailer overturned in June and another in August near the site.

"We made improvements to the existing 35, we put up guard rails where we could, we paved through the shoulders so that it was a little wider," Walker said. "Where we've had accidents is where you get off the new 35 onto the old 35 -- it's a sharp turn."

Since the DOH dropped its $187 million design/build bid, Walker said it has lost its GARVEE bond capacity for the project, which has since been allocated to other areas.

"GARVEE bonds are something we haven't used extensively in the past, but you're basically getting an advance of federal dollars," he said.

Toll booths might not be the only option, however. According to Walker, there is a possibility the project could be completed through a public-private partnership. The pilot program, launched in 2007, has been given the go-ahead by the state Legislature to proceed, Walker said, and would allow private entities or contractors to front all of the money necessary to finish a project, and the DOH would pay them over a given period of time.

"The Legislature has allowed us to take a look at this public-private partnership, and we're trying to find what projects could benefit by the "P3" concept," he said. "I don't know that we've arrived at that decision for Route 35 yet, but we certainly know that it would be on anyone's list."

Walker said while the DOH has not determined the project's eligibility for P3 yet, there is also the matter of finding a private partner with the bond capacity to foot the bill for such a large project.

"We think it's a feasible alternative; we're just trying to see where it works," he said.

Senate Bill 190, which was sponsored by Sens. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and Mike Hall, R-Putnam, and went into effect July 1, is the bill that will allow for P3 funding.

"It wasn't addressed with the specific purpose of finishing Route 35," Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, told the Putnam County commission during its regular meeting Tuesday. "There's some language in it that can be construed as allowing that, so that's one of the avenues that they're seeking to explore."

According to commission president Joe Haynes, Mason County officials have penned a letter to the governor voicing their support of P3 funding -- something he said the Putnam County commission will likely also do.

"The completion of 35 is going to mean a lot to Mason County, Putnam County, Kanawha County -- to West Virginia as a whole," Haynes said.  "I think there's a window of opportunity here, and we ought to be on board in saying that we support it."

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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