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Audit says W.Va. Turnpike decision needed soon

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislators should make a final decision on the future of the West Virginia Turnpike as soon as possible, a legislative audit released Monday concludes.

If the Legislature decides to repeal tolls when the current Parkways Authority bonds are paid off in 2019, it needs to come up with a plan for funding the additional $30.4 million a year cost of operating the 88-mile stretch of interstate as a toll-free highway, it said.

That's based on the Division of Highways' cost per lane mile figures to maintain other interstate highways in the state, the audit found.

"If the Turnpike is operated by DOH as a toll-free road, the Turnpike miles will not cause additional federal dollars to be apportioned to the state," the audit states.

Currently, Turnpike tolls produce about $84 million a year in revenue, with $59 million a year dedicated to Turnpike maintenance and improvements.

Additionally, there would be a $9 million a year loss to the local economy for the 231 Parkways Authority jobs that would be eliminated if tolls are removed, the audit found.

The state would also need to come up with $2.7 million a year to avoid layoffs of 31 State Troopers and State Police personnel currently funded through the Parkways Authority.

Other impacts of removing the tolls would be the loss of a $1 million annual subsidy for the Tamarack complex near Beckley, and $420,000 a year to operate Courtesy Patrols on the Turnpike.

It would also cost an estimated $23 million to dismantle toll plazas along the Turnpike, the audit found.

Conversely, if the Legislature decides to keep tolls on the Turnpike beyond 2019, the audit recommends looking at alternative toll collection locations that would minimize the impact of tolls for residents who frequently travel parts of the Turnpike.

Parkways General Manager Greg Barr said he agrees it would be costly for the state to operate the Turnpike as a toll-free interstate, and pointed out that over the next 30 years, 80 percent of the bridge decks on the Turnpike will need to be replaced.

"It appears essential that a replacement revenue source be identified ... keeping in mind that over 76 percent of toll revenues come from out-of-state users, whereas new revenue sources will most likely be from some form of taxes or fees paid solely by citizens of West Virginia," Barr said.

As for alternative toll plaza locations to minimize impact on residents, Barr said that would require a traffic engineering study to determine the best locations.

He said the current toll plazas are located in more rural areas with lower daily traffic numbers to minimize the impact on residents commuting to cities along the Turnpike.

Also, Barr said E-ZPass and discounts available for frequent Turnpike travelers provide 35 percent to 90 percent reductions in tolls, reducing $2 tolls to $1.30 for E-ZPass users and as low as 20 cents for frequent users.Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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