WV House votes to remove Turnpike tolls - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WV House votes to remove Turnpike tolls

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Several members of the West Virginia House of Delegates said they're tired of having to pay to travel to Charleston.

And while the vote on House Bill 3163 wasn't unanimous, other delegates said the support removing the $2 toll.

"Southern West Virginia from Charleston south has been exposed to a double tax since 1954," said Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, who is an ardent supporter of the bill. "We did so willingly.

"We are the only place in the state that has built its own highway on a double tax. … However, we allowed that double tax to be put in place to build a highway. We're no longer building a highway."

The bill removes the tolls on the 88-mile stretch of road once the bonds used to construct the highway are paid off by Feb. 1, 2020. After that, maintenance of the road will be transferred to the Division of Highways. Those employed by the Parkways Authority, which currently oversees Turnpike operations, would be allowed to transfer to other state agencies or seek other employment.

But Delegate Danny Wells, D-Kanawha, said he didn't see how the DOH could support maintenance on the Turnpike, saying the agency couldn't support it.

"The Division of Highways is in pretty bad shape already," Wells said when speaking to the bill before the April 3 vote. "The Division of Highways can in no way afford to take over the funding of this Turnpike debt of at least $60 million per year."

But Gearheart said the influx of money coming from in-state and out-of-state tourists will help Southern West Virginia's economy. He said the toll deters out-of-state travelers from entering West Virginia, meaning they don't experience many of the state's tourist attractions.

"These are folks who spend money to whitewater raft," Gearheart said. "These are folks who gamble in Nitro. These are folks who go to Theater West Virginia.

"When these people come from out of state, they bring their doggone dollars," he added. "We want those dollars."

Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, is chairwoman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee. She said committee members from all parts of the state worked hard on the bill and heard from experts who support the removal of the tolls.

Staggers said she remembers when the road was being constructed in the mid-1950s. Her father put all six kids in a station wagon and drove to Charleston so the family could drive to Princeton on "this marvelous, new thing."

"We're sort of tired of this marvelous new thing," she said, noting people in Southern West Virginia have no attractive alternative routes connecting their part of the state to Charleston. In addition, portions of the road are too dangerous, she said.

Delegate John O'Neal, R-Raleigh, said he supports removing the tax, but understands why they were put in place and tolls may be an option on newly constructed roads in the future.

"We need a number of options in the future to build roads," he said. "Putting tolls on the roads may need to be an option in some areas. … But I can tell you it will be very difficult I think to persuade voters and members of this body (to do so)."

But some members of the House view tolls as a tax and frankly don't support them.

"I agree this is a discriminatory and regressive tax," said Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley. "I'm opposed to tolls in any form or shape."

The bill passed 97-1 and will now go to the Senate for its debate.