Legislation would allow workers to keep jobs past Turnpike bond payoff

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After years of uncertainty, Parkways Authority employees have reason to believe their jobs will continue beyond 2019, with the passage late Friday of legislation to expand the authority’s ability to issue road bonds (Senate Bill 1003).

The legislation specifically removes a section of state law that would have required the Parkways Authority to remove tolls and turn operation of the West Virginia Turnpike over to the Division of Highways once 30-year bonds issued in 1989 are paid off, something that will happen in May 2019.

Parkways General Manager Greg Barr said Monday he always figured the authority’s fate would come down to the 2019 legislative session.

“I was really fearful it would be May or April before they would make a decision,” Barr said, adding that, as of Monday afternoon, he had not formally notified Parkways staff of the bill’s passage, saying he wanted to wait until Gov. Jim Justice signs the bill into law.

“That’s one thing I’ve learned from this special session. It’s not final until it’s final,” Barr said.

The legislation is part of Justice’s plan to issue up to $2.8 billion in bonds for highways construction, and Barr said there is plenty of work to be done to get new Parkways bonds ready to go to market by December or January to ensure the funding is in place when the 2018 construction season begins next spring.

“There’s a lot that’s going to have to get started rather quickly,” he said.

That includes an in-depth traffic study that, among other issues, will have to determine the financial impact of a provision in the new legislation that would allow passenger vehicles to have EZ-Pass transponders, allowing unlimited travel through Turnpike tolls at a cost of $25 a year.

Barr said that currently, an EZ-Pass permitting unlimited travel through the three Turnpike barriers costs $285 a year, with very few sold to nonresidents.

Whether the $25 fee is likely to bring an onslaught of EZ-Pass sales that would reduce overall Turnpike revenue is one of the factors to be determined by the traffic study, he said.

It probably will take until September, at the earliest, to complete the traffic study, at which time a bond financing team that includes bond counsel, engineering consultants, traffic engineers and bond fund advisers, will be assembled to consider different tolling scenarios to finance different bond amounts, Barr said.

Other steps include getting bond rating agencies and bond underwriters to sign off on whatever bonding plan is recommended.

The new legislation also requires the Parkways Authority to conduct public meetings, to go over any proposed bond issues and any toll increases needed to finance the bond funds, Barr said.

While getting the Parkways bonds to market is a slow, laborious process, Barr said that once the bonds are sold, the Division of Highways should be able to get projects under way comparatively quickly.

“[The] DOH will already be expediting certain projects, to be able to hit the ground running,” he said.

Barr said he has long argued against removing tolls on the Turnpike, a point he said he was still making to the Legislature as late as Friday evening.

“What I kept trying to remind everybody was that, if you let the Turnpike tolls come off, you’re cutting off a revenue stream of $90 million a year, and about $67 million of that is coming from out-of-state drivers,” Barr said.

Barr said he is optimistic that the Parkways bonds, along with road bonds to be funded from a separate bill increasing the state gas tax and various Division of Motor Vehicles fees (Senate Bill 1006), will bring a significant upgrade to the state highways system.

“This goes a long way to seeing the roads in better condition,” he said.

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

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