Blue Ribbon panel: Raise WV Turnpike tolls to fund highways repair

After a 20-month hiatus, the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways on Wednesday adopted recommendations to increase funding for West Virginia roadways — recommendations that are essentially unchanged from preliminary proposals issued in September 2013.

The proposals, approved during a conference call meeting at the Capitol on Wednesday, call for providing $141 million a year in new revenue, primarily by increasing the tax paid on vehicle purchases, and raising several Division of Motor Vehicles licensing and registration fees, many of which have not been increased since the 1970s.

It also proposes issuing up to $1 billion in road bonds, to be paid off by extending tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike for 30 years, to 2049.

That proposal — which drew criticism from many legislators when floated in 2013 — would require a 10 percent to 25 percent toll increase in 2016, and additional increases every other year for at least 10 years, according to the report. However, the commission proposes freezing toll rates for West Virginia EZPass users for the first five years.

Commissioner Bob Orders, representing the Contractors Association of West Virginia, noted that the report says the state needs an additional $750 million a year to adequately maintain existing roads, and an additional $350 million annually to complete planned road projects. The recommended funding increases, he noted, would provide only a fraction of that amount.

“As it stands now, we’re proposing $141 million annually of new funds,” he said. “This is far short of the revenue needed to build and maintain our highways system.”

However, Commissioner Wally Thornhill, a Chapmanville auto dealer, said the proposals, including increasing the state privilege tax on motor vehicle sales from 5 percent to 6 percent, along with the increases in DMV fees, will hurt Mountain State auto dealers.

“It’s all on the automobile industry,” he said. “I think they need to pay some of it, but the consumer and the out-of-state consumer also needs to participate.”

While the 2013 preliminary proposal was not enthusiastically received by the Legislature — Delegate Marty Gearhart, R-Mercer, now House Transportation chairman, called it a “colossal failure” — Administration Secretary Jason Pizatella said he’s hopeful legislators will heed constituents’ complaints about poor road conditions in the state.

“I have talked to legislators, and I’ve talked to leadership, and I’m told it’s one of the number one complaints they get,” said Pizatella, who serves as commission chairman. “All West Virginians are looking for leadership in this area.”

On Wednesday, Gearhart said he had not seen the commission’s final report, but said he doubts if his opinion from 2013 has changed.

“If it that closely resembles the draft that I saw some time ago, then I would agree with very little of its findings,” he said.

Gearhart said it’s not debatable that the state’s roads are in bad shape, but he said he’s not convinced the commission’s conclusion, that $1.1 billion a year in additional funding is needed, is accurate.

He said he believes the Legislature will come up with some innovative proposals for road funding in the 2016 session.

“I think there’s going to be some good ideas out there,” Gearhart said, adding, “To improve economically, you’ve got to have goods roads and a good transportation system.”

Gearhart’s counterpart in the Senate, Transportation Chairman Chris Walters, R-Putnam, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Pizatella, meanwhile, said the recommendations should be considered as the first phase of an ongoing comprehensive plan to fund state roads.

He said the proposals approved Wednesday took economic and political realities into consideration.

“To ask the people of West Virginia to come up with $1 billion is just not feasible,” he said.

The report calls for continued study of road funding innovations, possibly including replacing the state gas tax —which is vulnerable because of the advent of high-mileage vehicles and natural gas, electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles — with a tax based on vehicle miles traveled.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin created the Blue Ribbon Commission in August 2012, mandating that the panel — made up of legislators, state and local officials, industry and labor representatives, scholars and citizens — study the state’s highways needs and come up with a long-term funding plan.

In addition to Pizatella, Orders and Thornhill, members include Sens. Bob Beach, Mike Hall, Robert Plymale, Delegate Ron Walters, and now-former Delegates Margaret Staggers and David Walker, Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox, St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway, Mason County Commissioner Rick Handley, Fred Burns, of the state Trucking Association, Charles Clements, of the Route 2 and Interstate 68 Authority, Joe DeNeault, with West Virginians for Better Transportation, Gary Facemyer, with the American Council of Engineering Companies, Carol Fulks, with the state Hospitality and Travel Association, Brenda Nichols Harper, with the state Chamber of Commerce; Marc Meachum, with the Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, Kenny Perdue, with the West Virginia AFL-CIO, Karen Price, with the state Manufacturers Association, Mary Prim, with the Contractors’ Labor Council, Don Rigby, with the Wheeling Regional Economic Development Partnership, Gary Tillis, with the Affiliated Construction Trades, Jan Vineyard, with the state Business and Industry Council, academics Andrew Nichols, of Marshall University, and Tom Witt, retired from West Virginia University, and citizen members Mark Baldwin and David Satterfield.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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