The number of drivers using the West Virginia Turnpike's E-Z Pass program has increased dramatically since tolls on the roads went up four years ago.
Greg Barr, general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, said there are 34,661 active E-Z Pass accounts in the state, using a combined 65,480 E-Z Pass transponders.
That's an increase of more than 10,000 accounts since the June 2010, when the Parkways Authority had 23,475 active accounts.
Barr attributes that jump to increased awareness about the program, as well as increases to tolls on the Turnpike.
The Parkways Authority raised tolls on the Turnpike in August 2009, charging cars $2 per booth and commercial trucks $6.75. Passenger vehicles previously were charged $1.25 and trucks were charged $4.25.
E-Z Pass users, however, continue to pay rates almost as low as before the increase. Passenger vehicles equipped with a transponder are charged $1.30 per tollbooth. Commercial vehicles are charged $5.40.
Now, another round of toll hikes are in the works. Barr said that likely would lead to another increase in E-Z Pass users.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways last month finalized road-funding recommendations that include borrowing $1 billion against the West Virginia Turnpike and using increased tolls to pay back that bond debt.
The recommendations — which still must be approved by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the state Legislature — are based on a recent engineering study that found 76 percent of toll revenues come from out-of-state vehicles, so the majority of West Virginia's road funding would be generated by residents of other states.
The commission recommends increasing those tolls by 40 percent or 63 percent over the next decade. But members also recommended freezing E-Z Pass toll rates for five years, in order to protect state residents from the toll hikes.
That likely would increase the number of people using transponders.
"If the cash rate went up, I would think that would increase people wanting to get an E-Z Pass," Barr said.
When West Virginia first joined the E-Z Pass network in 2000, Barr said only about 18 percent of Turnpike drivers were using the transponders. Now, about 30 percent of drivers have an E-Z Pass.
Other states have much higher penetration rates, some as high as 75 percent.