House speaker skeptical of road loans
House Speaker Tim Miley said he "probably" would oppose taking out additional loans on the West Virginia Turnpike to fund road construction, because of earlier promises to take tollbooths off the highway.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways has recommended the state sell $1 billion in road bonds to generate more money for road repairs and construction.
The commission also recommends keeping tollbooths on the Turnpike and raising tolls to help pay back the bonds.
Miley said he's not sure that's a good idea, because lawmakers have already promised citizens the tolls would come off the 88-mile Turnpike in 2019.
He said he doesn't know how many of his members support that proposal but said the idea has received a "lukewarm reception, at best." He also said the commission's recommendations would not make it through the legislative process without bipartisan support.
Miley is reserving the right to change his mind, however.
"I'll support the most prudent course of action. That's the only commitment I can make," he said.
Experts agree the state's roads are in dire need of repair, Miley said, and the state needs to find ways to finance those repairs.
He said the Legislature would wait to see what direction Tomblin will take on the commission's proposals.
The commission expects to present its findings to the governor sometime over the next few weeks.
Tomblin recently expressed wariness to taking out a $1 billion loan to fund road construction, however.
"I'm not sure a bond issue of that magnitude at this time is something we want to get into, but I'll reserve judgment until I see the final report," he told the Charleston Gazette earlier this month.
Commission Chairman Jason Pizatella, who also is the governor's deputy chief of staff, said Tomblin isn't opposed to funding construction with bonds, he just wants to review the commission's final recommendations before making a decision.
Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said, "everything is always considered."
Republican leaders in the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates recently said there's little support among their members for the commission's proposals, which also include more than $70 million in increases to DMV fees.
And while House Minority Leader Tim Armstead and Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall agreed the state needs more money to fix its aging infrastructure, they said the public is unlikely to accept new fees or increased tolls.
Senate President Jeff Kessler criticized Republicans for suggesting the state could generate road funding simply by cutting other areas of the state budget and tinkering with employee wages.
"You can't save enough money," he said. "You can't cut enough to get enough revenue generated to fix the amount of roads we have in disrepair."
Road funding will come from one of two places, Kessler said: taxes or tolls.
He said he wants to wait to see the commission's final report before casting judgment. But Kessler said he would prefer a funding mechanism that would affect all West Virginia residents like increases to registration fees, rather than increasing tolls, which would only affect residents in one area of the state.
Miley and Kessler agreed passing any road funding bill could be challenging next year, because many members of the Legislature are up for election.