Legislative audit makes WV Turnpike recommendations - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Legislative audit makes WV Turnpike recommendations as bond payoff nears

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A legislative what-if could have a costly answer.

An audit from the West Virginia Legislative Auditor presented to lawmakers Jan. 6 found a price tag of $30 million per year for the state to operate the West Virginia Turnpike as a toll-free road at its current level of maintenance.

As many as 231 people could be laid off from the Parkways Authority as a result of removing the tolls, creating a loss of income to the local economy of more than $9 million, according to the audit, and 31 West Virginia State Police personnel on the Turnpike would be lost if the Legislature does not appropriate the $2.7 million in personnel and operational costs for them the Parkways Authority currently funds.

The audit included several recommendations regarding the operation of the Turnpike and urges the Legislature to make a final decision as to the Turnpike's future "as soon as possible."

Under current law, the West Virginia Turnpike is required to be transferred to the Division of Highways once its bonds are paid off and the DOH Commissioner determines the Turnpike to be in "satisfactory condition."

The bonds currently are scheduled to be paid off in May 2019, and the commissioner expects it to be in satisfactory condition in 2019.

Greg Barr, general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, said one of the critical points that should be clarified is more than 75 percent of the revenue collected on the West Virginia Turnpike comes from out-of-state vehicles.

"If we did have to transfer the cost of maintenance for that road … to Division of Highways, we would lose a stream of revenue coming into the state in excess of $80 million," Barr said. "The replacement revenue, whatever source you all would choose to dedicate to that, be it taxes or fees … would be solely on the backs of West Virginia taxpayers."

The Turnpike miles are already part of the funding formula for Federal-Aid Highway funding, the audit points out, so no additional federal highway funds would be given to the state if the Turnpike became a toll-free road.

And under new federal regulations, the audit clarified, the state could use excess toll revenues on other state roads if tolls continue on the Turnpike.

The West Virginia Turnpike was opened in 1954 as a two-lane highway, and it was upgraded to a four-lane highway by 1987 to meet federal interstate standards. Its 88 miles stretch from Charleston to Princeton and has four toll plazas. The Parkways Authority expanded through the years to include Tamarack in Beckley. The authority also has four major maintenance facilities, in Ghent, Beckley, Standard and Chelyan. The facilities include salt sheds, storage for vehicles, fuel pumps and administrative offices. The Parkways Authority owns and manages nearly $1 billion in depreciable capital assets in total.

Dismantling the toll booths and reconstructing any toll plaza entrances would cost about $23 million, according to the audit, and the Courtesy Patrol Fund, which is administered by the Division of Tourism, could incur additional costs of $420,000 per year to provide a patrol along the Turnpike.

The audit suggests the Parkways Authority refrain from constructing any new facilities that would put a financial burden on any other agency in the event of a takeover of the Turnpike's operation.

The audit recommends the Parkways Authority, Division of Highways, West Virginia State Police, Public Service Commission and Division of Tourism should host formal discussions to develop plans in the event of a possible transfer of the Turnpike's operation.

The audit suggests alternative toll locations if the Legislature decides to continue requiring tolls on the Turnpike after its bonds are paid, as a way to relieve West Virginians who reside near and frequently travel the West Virginia Turnpike.

The audit found most of the West Virginia Parkway Authority's long-term decisions already take into consideration the possibility of the Turnpike being transferred to the West Virginia Division of Highways. And despite "significant cost savings" as a result of previous audit recommendations, the latest audit points out that Tourist Information Centers continue to operate "uneconomically," and it suggests leaving the centers un-manned.

The audit also suggested the Parkways Authority develop plans to make Tamarack completely self-sufficient.