West Virginia Commission Considers Turnpike Tolls, Borrowing, Fee Increases but No New Taxes to Fund Transportation

Members of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways were hard at work this week starting to finalize a list of suggestions for how the state might raise funding for road projects. The suggestions will likely form the basis for legislation to be put forward by the governor and considered by lawmakers during the 2014 session. The commission could recommend taking a page out of the playbooks of Ohio and Pennsylvania to use prospective future toll revenues on the West Virginia Turnpike to borrow on behalf of other non-toll roads in the state. New or adjusted fees could also be on the way. But new taxes likely won’t be on the table.

The Charleston Gazette  and The Charleston Daily Mail reported this week that at a meeting Wednesday, the commission indicated they would recommend that the state:

  • increase tolls on the Turnpike (by an as yet unspecified amount) and not allow them to expire, as they are currently scheduled to do in 2019;
  • increase vehicle registration fees by $20, vehicle title fees by $35 and driver’s license fees by $5 to generate about $77.4 million annually;
  • redirect all sales tax money from vehicle repairs, automobile parts and similar purchases to the State Road Fund, which would generate about $25 million annually;
  • create a $200 annual registration fee for vehicles not powered by gasoline or natural gas; and
  • institute a $100 annual registration fee for hybrid vehicles.

All told, those recommendations could generate just over $100 million a year for road projects in the state. But that’s much less than the $1.3 billion a recent engineering study said West Virginia needs to spend to maintain current roads and continue to expand its infrastructure.

So the commission will also propose that the state generate another $1 billion by borrowing money through road bonds. Toll revenues from the Turnpike would be used to repay the debt over time. The plan is modeled after a recent $1.5 billion bond issue by the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission.

At nine public hearings around the state this summer and in a survey of nearly 1,400 residents, the commission heard that West Virginians were opposed to any increases in gas taxes, motor vehicle privilege taxes or consumer sales taxes to fund state roads. Commission members suggested that raising tolls is an attractive option for generating revenues because 76 percent of tolls paid on the Turnpike are paid by out-of-state drivers. The commission is proposing that Turnpike toll rates be frozen for West Virginia E-ZPass users for five years.

Jason Pizatella, chief counsel to Tomblin and chairman of the commission, said the plan would allow the state to complete road projects that would otherwise not be completed for 20 years or more.

The 31-member blue ribbon commission is made up of representatives of the business, labor, tourism, construction and academic communities, as well as legislators and members of the governor’s administration.

Their plan is scheduled to be finalized at the commission’s final meeting later this month.

Further Reading

  • TollroadsNews also had a piece this week looking at the West Virginia Turnpike, potential toll revenues and what the borrowing plan might look like.