WV Parkways Authority starts road bond sale process

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Without discussion, members of the West Virginia Parkways Authority on Thursday started the long, complicated process that will lead to the sale of up to $500 million in Turnpike revenue bonds — part of what Gov. Jim Justice envisions as an unprecedented $2.8 billion state road-building and road-upgrade initiative.

“As everyone knows, this is an important part of his overall road plan,” said Jason Pizatella, Parkways Authority chairman and Justice’s deputy chief of staff.

“If he were here today, he’d say, ‘Let’s keep moving the train forward,’ ” Pizatella said of Justice’s highways initiative.

The resolution approved Thursday authorizes Parkways General Manager Greg Barr to take a number of actions needed to get the bond issue ready to go to market, including retaining bond counsel and financial advisers, as well as authorizing traffic engineers to conduct studies to project traffic levels on the Turnpike with toll increases.

“Basically, we’re getting what we call the working group together, to see this bond project through to the end,” he said.

Unlike the last major issue of Turnpike bonds, when the state sold $143 million in bonds in 1989, Barr said this bond issue will be more complicated, particularly since the legislation authorizing the bond sale requires Parkways to offer unlimited-use Turnpike passes at a cost of between $8 and $25 a year.

Currently, Parkways offers an unlimited-use commuter pass for all three Turnpike toll plazas at a cost of $285 per year. Those unlimited-use passes account for about 8,000 of Parkways’ roughly 33,000 passenger vehicle E-ZPass accounts.

Barr said a key part of the engineering and traffic studies will be to project how many drivers will buy the cheaper single-fee unlimited-use pass, which will be available for in-state and out-of-state passenger vehicles, and determine how much toll revenue will be lost to those passes.

In proposing the new Turnpike bond issue, which likely will require doubling current Turnpike tolls, Justice initially proposed charging $8 a year for the unlimited commuter pass, but the legislation passed June 16 (Senate Bill 1003) allows the Parkways Authority to set the fee at between $8 and $25 a year.

“For passenger cars, an increase in tolls will incentivize people to get the cheaper single-fee pass,” Barr said.

He said its possible the traffic study will recommend transitioning to higher tolls over time.

“The trucking industry is especially sensitive to the timing of increases,” Barr said. “They want to know in advance before they enter into contracts.”

Under the law, revenue from the bond sale can be used to fund roads projects in 10 Southern West Virginia counties, including the counties served by the Turnpike.

In addition to authorizing the Turnpike bond sale, legislators increased the amount of GARVEE bonds the state can issue. GARVEE bonds are financed by a portion of future federal road funds paid to the state.

The primary component of the governor’s road plan, however, is a $1.6 billion revenue bond issue, which is contingent on voters approving the “Roads to Prosperity 2017” amendment to the state Constitution in a referendum election on Oct. 7.

Also Thursday:

n Barr confirmed that the Parkways Authority is one of several state agencies that missed deadlines for submitting financial audits — but he said the authority’s audit was filed just two days late.

He said the transition to the wvOasis statewide computer system did make it more difficult to get information filed on a timely basis.

“It complicates things when you change an entire accounting system, not only for us but for our auditors, as well,” Barr said.

n Capt. Eddie Starcher, new head of the State Police Turnpike detachment, discussed new initiatives for the detachment, including saturation patrols at the three toll plazas. Those patrols will be looking for drivers using cellphones, approaching the toll plazas at excessively high speeds or committing other traffic violations.

n Pizatella presented certificates of appreciation from the authority and the governor to former member Victor Grigoraci, of Charleston, for nearly 10 years of service on the authority.

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

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