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Tomblin unlikely to talk about toll removal

Don't expect Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to recommend removing or keeping the tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike or dissolving the state Parkways Authority during his State of the State address Wednesday.

"No, I'm not anticipating anything like that," state Department of Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said Monday after a panel discussion about transportation funding.

He thinks it's more likely the governor helps the department comply with federal highway requirements that call for EZ-Pass systems to communicate with one another.

Tomblin could also call for help with video enforcement issues, creating a better system for collecting revenue from Turnpike drivers who don't pay tolls, Mattox said.

The governor's office hasn't released its final report yet regarding recommendations, including a $1 billion bond issue, from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways. A Tomblin spokeswoman did not return a request for comment Monday.

Last year, Jason Pizatella, then Tomblin's legislative director and the governor's designee on the commission, said Tomblin had "strong reservations" about removing the tolls after the debt is paid.

In the fall, the commission recommended issuing $1 billion in bonds and leaving the tolls on the Turnpike until 2049. They recommend regular toll increases as well, suggesting two different strategies for implementing the increase.

Soon after the recommendation was released, Tomblin told the Charleston Gazette he wasn't sure "a bond issue of that magnitude at this time is something we want to get into."

Potentially increasing tolls and shifting the Parkways Authority under the control of the Department of Highways are both parts of a larger discussion about highway funding problems.

Last year, 97 members of the 100-seat state House of Delegates voted in support of a measure to let Turnpike tolls expire when the debt is paid off in 2019. The bill failed to advance out of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Committee Chairman Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, said Monday during the panel discussion he is in favor of keeping the tolls.

"There's a burden on southern West Virginia, but it's a small burden," Beach said.

"I think there's some misinformation out there."

An EZ-Pass subscription allows drivers to travel the Turnpike at a discount, and there are plenty of areas that don't have tolls, Beach said. Mike Taylor, a Randolph County commissioner and highway commission member, also pointed to data that show most Turnpike drivers come from outside West Virginia.

Beach also said he thinks other parts of the state aren't necessarily opposed to their own tolls.

Others who support leaving the tolls say removing that revenue leaves the Department of Highways on the hook for expensive Turnpike maintenance and could cost hundreds of parkways authority jobs.

It costs about $30 million annually to maintain the Turnpike, according to a legislative audit released Monday. Up to 213 people could lose their jobs if Turnpike maintenance shifts to the department, according to the audit.

Those who disagree - many of them lawmakers from southern West Virginia - say removing the tolls takes away a burden local residents have shouldered for years and saves administrative costs.

In the bill passed by the House last year, Turnpike maintenance employees would keep working for the department while toll workers and others received special preference on open state positions.

Mattox said he's "on board" with the commission's recommendations but thinks there are other options, too.

The authority could simply leave the tolls after the bonds are paid, allowing revenue that was going to pay off debt to instead go into a separate fund for public-private partnership expansion projects, Mattox said.

During the panel discussion, Mattox highlighted funding for capital expansion projects to illustrate some of the department's current funding problems.

Over the next six years, the department is budgeting $400 million a year for projects, a $100 million yearly cut compared to previous financing plans, Mattox said. Instead of spending that money evenly on expansion and preservation projects, Mattox said 70 percent of the funding would shift to preservation projects.

There's no question the department needs money, in Mattox's opinion. He said it took his staff about 20 minutes to allocate the $221 million in federal stimulus funds allocated to the state.

"$211 million is a drop in the bucket," Mattox said.

Tomblin will deliver the State of the State address Wednesday evening, officially starting the 2014 legislative session.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.

 


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