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A toll-free Turnpike could be expensive

DRIVING down the West Virginia Turnpike in January, one quickly becomes familiar with the Ontario license plate, which is white with blue lettering and a crown between the letters and the numbers.

Those plates are emblematic of the $60 million a year West Virginia rakes in every year from tolls paid by people who do not reside here.

That is three-quarters of the $80 million collected in tolls each year.

The House approved a bill that would lift the tolls from the Turnpike in 2020, a year after its current bonds are paid off. Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, is confident there is money elsewhere in the state budget to cover maintenance of the Turnpike once the bonds are paid off.

"We've got a situation put together where these employees are going to be offered jobs in state government to maintain their employment," he told Mannix Porterfield of the Register-Herald in Beckley.

"We've taken care of the employees and we've taken care of future funding. We're removing the tolls, which I believe will unleash the beast of the economy in Southern West Virginia."

If only a solution to Southern West Virginia's problems were that simple.

While the House weighed in on removing the tolls, a committee in the state Senate sweated over how to increase road funding. Some senators want to study placing some sort of tax on miles driven per year by state residents.

This would amount to a toll on every driver on any road in the state - and possibly out of state.

"The bottom line is our roads are in the worst shape that they've been in in a long time," said Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne.

"We're on a 24-year paving cycle when we should be at a 12-and-a-half-year, and we've got to find some ways to be able to come up with this."

Jason Pizatella, the governor's legislative director, said there are reservations about removing the tolls.

So should everyone. The Turnpike must be maintained. Having people from Ontario and elsewhere continue to pick up three-quarters of that maintenance bill is awfully tempting.


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