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Killing Parkways Authority hits roadblock

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Senate Transportation Committee resolution (SCR55) calls for an interim study of the feasibility of doing away with the Parkways Authority and making the Division of Highways responsible for the operation and maintenance of the 88-mile West Virginia Turnpike.

However, bond counsel Brian Helmick told the Select Committee on Infrastructure that's not feasible, since it would require breaking bond covenants and violating the Constitution.

"In this case, it would be big deal," he told legislators.

He said there's currently about $54.8 million of principal on the 1989 bond issue to be paid off, and when the bonds were sold in 1989, and some refinanced in 2002, bond covenants mandated that the Parkways Authority would be an independent body that would operate and adequately maintain the Turnpike until the bonds are retired.

Paying off the bonds early would be a possibility, but at a cost of an additional $7.4 million in interest and penalty payments, he said.

Likewise, the Division of Highways cannot simply take over the authority's bond debt.

"To put it under the Division of Highways would make it a general obligation of the state of West Virginia, which would be unconstitutional, unless the voters approved it," Helmick said.

The state can only take on bond debt if voters approve a constitutional amendment authorizing the bond sale in a statewide referendum.

"The state of West Virginia is not allowed to incur debt without a vote of the people," Helmick said.

Meanwhile, Parkways General Manager Greg Barr told the committee that while the Parkways bonds will be paid off in 2019, that doesn't mean Turnpike tolls will automatically be removed.

Under the 1989 law creating the Parkways Authority, it is up to the commissioner of Highways to determine whether the division is able to take over the Turnpike, he said.

"The commissioner of Highways will make a decision if the road is in good enough repair for the Division of Highways to take over operation of the Turnpike free of tolls," Barr said.

Barr said that while he anticipates road surfaces on the Turnpike will be in good condition in 2019, all 116 bridges on the roadway will need to be re-decked over the next 20 years, at an average present-day cost of $3.4 million per bridge.

"It's a very significant cost over 20 years," he said of the bridge upgrades.

Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, a strong advocate of removing Turnpike tolls, suggested that the Parkways Authority could begin making those repairs using toll revenues.

"Certainly, in the next six years, you'll fix a couple of bridges with all the money you're making," she commented.

Barr said bridge decks have a 40- to 60-year lifespan, and the oldest bridges on the Turnpike, Yeager and Bluestone, were erected in the 1950s. 

The governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways has recommended keeping tolls on the Turnpike for another 30 years to finance a new $1 billion bond issue for statewide road construction and maintenance, but that possibility did not come up during committee discussions Tuesday.

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


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