CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Motorists could eventually come across toll booths on West Virginia roads besides the state turnpike under a proposal from Gov. Joe Manchin that offers an alternative source of scarce highway dollars.
Legislation introduced at Gov. Joe Manchin’s request this week would allow the turnpike’s parent agency to sell revenue bonds for new road projects around the state. The agency could then erect tolls to pay off those bonds.
While the bill would expand the agency’s reach beyond the 88-mile turnpike found in four southern counties, it also would extend Manchin’s ongoing drive to refocus it solely on roads.
Manchin spokesman Matt Turner noted that the bill would have the agency weigh whether tolls would be practical for any given project. The measure also requires public notice and hearings in all counties hosting a project slated for revenue bonds or tolls.
Turner said likely candidates include the uncompleted upgrades to U.S. Route 35, which enters Mason County from Ohio and ends just west of Charleston, and the Mon-Fayette Expressway planned for north-central West Virginia.
Even with annual federal highway funding and the recent stimulus boost, West Virginia struggles along with most other states to keep up with its road needs. But no other is responsible for as large a share of the roads within its borders as the Mountain State.
In neighboring Virginia, newly minted Gov. Bob McDonnell wants to erect tolls on several interstates to aid that state’s ailing highway program. Another neighbor, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming are among other states eyeing the toll option for funding roads.
West Virginians for Better Transportation, a group made up of industry contractors and other interested parties, cites estimates that $800 million worth of projects remain idle each year for lack of funding. While it does not endorse bills, Chairman Joe Denault said his group sees value in Manchin’s proposal. He added that it could only likely help the more heavily trafficked roads.
“Every tool in the tool box ought to be there, and this is certainly one tool,” Denault said Tuesday. “It focuses the discussion on the fact that we don’t have the revenues that we need for our road needs.”
The turnpike agency — the West Virginia Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority — has been involved in other pursuits, as its name suggests. These include Tamarack, the arts and crafts showplace built just off the turnpike in Raleigh County. It’s a popular tourist stop, but legislative audits have questioned its costs and operations. Manchin wants Tamarack eventually transferred to the state Commerce Department.
Manchin’s proposal would remove further development and tourism projects from the agency’s scope and change its name accordingly, to the state Parkways Authority.
The agency has largely ended its other non-turnpike duties in recent years, amid a backlash by lawmakers that spurred limits to its ability to issue bonds. Manchin’s bill would restore that power, though for non-turnpike projects only. The measure would also increase the agency’s governing board from five to seven appointed members.
Legislators from turnpike counties have sought for years to rid the roadway of its tolls. They appeared mixed on the prospect of additional tolls elsewhere Tuesday.
“Those are two different issues, really,” said Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer.
But House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White seemed to echo Denault in viewing the proposal as an option.
“If we’re going to continue to build four-lane highways in West Virginia, we’re going to have to start thinking outside the box,” the Mingo County Democrat said.
Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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