Tolls, fees eyed for W.Va. roads
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tolls and increased motor vehicle fees -- but no tax increases -- would pay for West Virginia road construction, under proposals offered Wednesday by the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways.
The centerpiece of the proposals is legislation to authorize the state Parkways Authority to issue $1 billion in road bonds, to be financed by continuing and increasing tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike.
Jason Pizatella, chief counsel to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and chairman of the commission, noted that out-of-state vehicles account for 76 percent of the tolls collected on the Turnpike.
"Essentially, what we have here is out-of-state drivers subsidizing one of our most heavily traveled highways," he said.
Modeled after a recent $1.5 billion bond issue by the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, the plan would keep tolls on the Turnpike for another 30 years and would provide a much-needed infusion of road-building funds, Pizatella said.
While the plan ultimately would require Parkways to increase tolls on the Turnpike, the proposal calls for freezing rates for West Virginia E-ZPass users for five years.
"The state would be able to complete road projects now that, otherwise, would not be completed for 20 years or more," Pizatella said, adding, "All of this would be accomplished without one single penny of higher taxes."
Through nine public hearings around the state this summer and a survey of nearly 1,400 residents, Pizatella said, the commission got a clear message that West Virginians oppose any increases in gas taxes, motor vehicle privilege taxes or the consumer sales tax to fund work on state roads.
"Given the economic climate we're in," he said, "we just didn't think it was appropriate."
Earlier, commission member Jan Vineyard, chairwoman of the legislative and public-outreach subcommittee, noted that proposed tax increases came in as the three least-favorable options for road funding in the survey.
Conversely, 78 percent of those polled favored keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike. Vineyard, president of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association, noted that support was strong even at public hearings in Beckley and Princeton.
"We expected to see that in the Fairmont area, the Wheeling area, but we were certainly surprised to see that in Southern West Virginia," she said of support for the Turnpike tolls.
The commission, created by Tomblin in August 2012, also is proposing about $103 million a year in new road funding, primarily by increasing a variety of Division of Motor Vehicles fees.
Those increases would raise about $77.4 million a year, and would include a $20 increase in vehicle registration fees (which would raise $26 million), a $35 increase in vehicle titles ($21 million), and a $5 a year increase in driver's license fees ($6.5 million).
In 2011, legislators passed a bill that would have increased DMV fees for the first time in nearly 40 years and raised $40 million for the state Road Fund. Tomblin, then acting governor, vetoed that bill.
Commissioners also recommended creating a $200-a-year fee on alternative-fuel vehicles, and a $100 annual fee on gas/electric hybrid vehicles.
Also, the commission proposed dedicating sales tax collections on purchases of auto parts, services or repairs to the state Road Fund, to generate about $25 million a year.
However, commission members Joe Deneault and Bob Orders pointed out that the funding proposals still fall far short of the $1.3 billion a year of additional funding that consultants said is needed to complete and maintain all state highway projects.
"We've in no way found all the funding we need to solve all the problems," Orders said.
"As a state of 1.8 million people . . . it is very difficult, if not impossible, to reach that funding level," Pizatella responded.
Commissioners rejected amendments to the plan to increase the privilege tax on vehicle purchases from 5 percent to 6 percent and to increase the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, with the additional revenue dedicated to the Road Fund.
Commissioners did approve studying various options for highway funding in the future, including the possibility of replacing the gas tax with a vehicle-miles-traveled tax, as well as dedicating a portion of a proposed Marcellus Shale natural gas Future Fund to state roads.
During the more than three-hour-long meeting, commissioners adopted most of the recommendations that they will submit to the governor later this month. However, they delayed voting on the $1 billion Parkways bond proposal until the commission's Sept. 19 meeting, to allow themselves time to study the plan in detail.
Ultimately, Pizatella said, it will be up to Tomblin to determine which proposals will be presented to the Legislature in January.
The 31-member commission includes representatives of business, labor, tourism, building contractors, the academic community, as well as legislators and members of the Tomblin administration.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com or 304-348-1220.