Tomblin opposes House’s tolls bill

One of the key unexpected pieces of legislation that will be debated during the final week of the 2013 regular legislative session is whether to pass a bill that calls for removal of tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike in 2020, one year after the bond debt for the 88-mile highway from Charleston to Princeton would be paid off.

Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, is the leading advocate of this issue and introduced HB2800 back in February. The bill that came out of the House Finance Committee last week is a modified version of his proposal. But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin opposes this plan, as do members of the state Parkways Authority.

Jason Pizatella, who is legislative director for the governor, said his boss “has strong reservations about removing tolls from the turnpike when the bonds are paid off.”

The debt from the bonds sold to pay for construction of the turnpike is expected to be paid in full by 2019. The bill that was approved by the House last Wednesday anticipates the tolls would be removed one year later and responsibility for maintaining the road would be turned over to the Division of Highways.

Tomblin wants to wait until a Blue Ribbon Highway Commission study can address this very issue later this year. While Greg Barr, the general manager of the Parkways Authority, considers this bill a “terrible idea.”

When he was asked last week if he would sign a bill — assuming it is approved by both houses of the Legislature — the governor suggested in a newspaper interview that this legislation may be “premature.”

Currently, the tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike bring in about $80 million a year and some $60 million of that comes from motorists who live outside West Virginia. Moving the responsibility for the highway to the DOH would mean that West Virginia taxpayers would be paying 100 percent of the costs for this highway in the future.

Barr wants legislators to know that eliminating the tolls will halt a revenue stream that pays the salaries of 360 employees. And while the bill makes it clear maintenance personnel now working on the turnpike can move to the Division of Highways, there are 160 toll booth workers and 55 other employees who would lose their jobs.

The House passed the bill last Wednesday — the final day for the originating body to pass bills that start in that chamber — by a 97-1-0 vote.

So now the legislation’s fate lies in the hands of the state Senate and especially Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, where it will be reviewed before it can come to the Senate floor for a vote of the entire membership. He is careful to avoid giving his position on the bill but promises that it will not sit idle in the Senate. And even if it should pass that body as well the governor might then decide to veto it.

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