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As the state moves closer to paying off its bond debt associated with the West Virginia Turnpike, lawmakers are starting to consider what to do with the roadway. The ideas being discussed in the halls of the Capitol, however, always make their way a few miles down I-77 to the state Parkways Authority’s headquarters.
A bill originally introduced during the 2013 Legislative Session is being hashed out by legislators during interim meetings. Co-sponsored by Senator Bill Cole of Mercer County, he says it helps diminish the burden on the Turnpike counties.
“Senator Chafin and I introduced a bill that would try and take a small piece, less than 4 percent of the total revenue proceeds of the Turnpike and invest it back in the counties that the Turnpike runs through,” Cole said after an interim meeting in July.
The total price tag: $4 million, one million each for Kanawaha, Raleigh, Mercer and Fayette counties to invest in infrastructure or economic development projects.
But because of the contract attached to the bond, revenues brought in by tolls can only be used to pay off the debt. That debt is set to be settled in 2019, but Governor Tomblin’s designee to the Parkways Authority Jason Pizatella said until then, it’s illegal for the state to touch that money.
“We could not implement the proposal that Senator Chafin has discussed and I’m sure will offer during the 2014 regular session,” Pizatella said. “So, it would be up to him to work with the Parkways Authority to craft a proposal that we could realistically implement.”
In other words, realistically, that proposal would have to be implemented after 2019.
But just because the Parkways Authority Board Members are saying the state would have to wait before the counties could receive funds from Turnpike revenues, doesn’t mean they don’t support it.
“When the bonds are paid off, I wanted to keep that money in this end of the state,” said Board member and lifelong Mercer County resident Bill Seaver during a Parkways Authority meeting Thursday.
Seaver said he presented a plan to the Governor to continue the tolls on the Turnpike, in part to help the state maintain the road, but also to put money toward southern infrastructure projects.
“When the tolls are paid off in 2019, I want to keep the tolls on the Turnpike,” he said. “We have to to maintain it. The Department of Transportation can’t take care of it, but I want the excess money when we’re not paying the bonds anymore spent at a point from Charleston south to the tunnels the width of West Virginia, just on projects in southern West Virginia.”
He said projects like completing major roadways and replacing bridges throughout the region are crucial to the economic future of the entire state, and believed the proposal by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways is just not a viable option.
“They’re not going to be able to come in and raise the tolls on the Turnpike and then take that money and spend it all over the state. I just don’t see that happening. I don’t think the Governor would put that forth and have us sell more bonds to go off into the future,” Seaver said, “but I think if we do this we can take certain amounts of money for major projects, complete the part in Mercer County, pay for it over a five year period with toll revenues and other projects throughout the southern end of the state.”
Pizatella, who also serves as Chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission, said he heard the concerns Seaver and many other southern West Virginians have about the Turnpike and tried to work a compromise in to the Blue Ribbon’s proposal to the Governor.
“As part of our proposal, 25 percent of the bond revenue that would be realized from using the Turnpike to fund other projects would stay in southern West Virginia and stay in the four counties because we think that the citizens and motorists of southern West Virginia deserve that money,” he said. “So, I think that we will be able to find some middle ground as we go forward with this proposal.”
Pizatella said they have plenty of time to find that so-called middle ground because, again, nothing new can be done with toll revenues until 2019.
Seaver said he would also like to see the Governor commit $75,000 each year for the next six years to the four counties as a reimbursement for their toll costs when bussing students to and from school and to help seniors paying tolls as they travel for access to healthcare.