Parkways Authority members Thursday approved a $147.74 million operating budget for the West Virginia Turnpike for the 2019-20 budget year, which begins July 1.
That’s the first full-year budget since Turnpike tolls doubled on Jan. 15. While toll collections are the Authority’s predominate source of revenue, the increase is 44 percent higher than the current budget of $102.28 million.
Because of various EZ-Pass discount programs offered by the authority, the doubling of tolls “didn’t guarantee a doubling of toll revenue,” Parkways general manager Greg Barr explained.
That included sales of more than 100,000 super-discounted EZ-Pass transponders providing three years of unlimited use of the Turnpike for $24. Normally, an unlimited use EZ-Pass costs $285 a year.
Also Thursday, the authority approved a $2.35 million contract to HNTB Corp. to oversee an upgrade of the Turnpike’s toll collection system.
Barr said the toll system has not been upgraded since 2012, since until legislation passed in 2017 continuing the Turnpike as a toll road, it appeared that the Turnpike would become toll-free this year, when bonds sold in 1989 were paid off.
While most toll roads in the U.S. are either entirely electronic, with no cash booths, or are moving toward that end, Barr said it is unlikely that HNTB will recommend the Turnpike go entirely electronic.
“We’re considered a rural toll road. We don’t have that large of a commuter base,” he said.
He said the authority would have little recourse against out-of-staters who fail to pay bills for Turnpike tolls under a license plate reader billing system.
“There would be a lot of revenue leakage if we tried to go all-electronic tolling right now,” he said.
The toll system upgrade is expected to take three years to complete, he said.
Authority members were also apprised of plans to install guardrail in the median along a 6-mile stretch of Turnpike from Camp Creek to Flat Top, the scene of a dozen traffic fatalities in the past three years.
“Some of the more horrific accidents that have happened in the last couple of years have been crossovers, and crossovers of tractor-trailers,” Barr said.
Parkways engineering consultant Randy Epperly said he concluded that guardrails are the safest and most cost-efficient method to cut down on vehicles crossing the median in that dangerous stretch of Turnpike.
Other options included: concrete barriers, which he said tend to deflect the vehicle back into traffic lanes; cables, which have to be retensioned following an impact; or a mandatory truck pull-off at the top of the Camp Creek hill. He said that was not a viable option, since speeding has not been a factor in any of the fatal crashes.
“Guardrails should be the best solution long-term,” Epperly said.
Bid opening for the contract to install guardrail in that section of median is set for July 9, with the Authority expected to approve awarding of the contract at its July 11 meeting.
Installation should be completed late this summer.
While Parkway Authority meetings traditionally are chaired by the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Thursday’s meeting was chaired by gubernatorial advisor Bray Cary.