West Virginia’s motorists and visitors traveling across the Mountain State learned June 7 that tolls along the West Virginia Turnpike will double when the year 2019 arrives on their calendars.
West Virginia Parkways Authority voted to increase rates at three toll booths from $2 to $4 for passenger cars starting Jan. 1, according to the Associated Press.
It’s the first toll increase since 2009, when it went from $1.25 to $2, according to AP.
Drivers who frequently use the turnpike can choose to purchase an E-ZPass, which will cost $24 for unlimited use for three years. Those not already in the program also would pay a $13 one-time fee for a transponder.
Bill Seaver of Mercer County, a member of the authority, said the tolls are being raised so it can sell bonds for road projects throughout southern West Virginia. The goal is to sell $330 million of the bonds, starting with $170 million in July.
One of the main projects would include completing a road linking the “bridge to nowhere” located close to Route 460 near Bluefield, Seaver said. Work on a 3.8-mile extension to this bridge is part of the King Coal Highway (Interstate 73/74 corridor.)
“If all goes well, it could start by the end of the year,” he said.
On June 4, Greg Barr, general manager of the authority said the toll increase would be at each of the turnpike’s three plazas.
With the increases, the authority will be able to sell up to $330 million in bonds, and possibly up to $500 million if the plan works in the long term. Most of the money is slated for road projects in the 10 southern counties, Barr said.
The studies used by the authority estimated that from 2018 to 2019, when the new fee structure is implemented, total transactions will drop from about 39.8 million to 34.5 million. However, with the toll hikes and E-ZPass money, the revenue will increase, from $93.2 million in 2018 to $113.3 million in 2019, according to information Barr provided.
Revenue from passenger cars is estimated to bring in $19.8 million this year, but only $1.5 million next year, estimating that the majority of people using the turnpike will purchase an E-ZPass; but the revenue from passenger cars with no E-ZPass is estimated to bring in $25.8 million this year, jumping to $34.2 million next year, according to the turnpike authority’s information.
Delegate Marty Gearheart (R-Mercer) said he attended the June 7 authority meeting.
“Obviously, there are discount programs and there is an E-ZPass for passenger vehicles that are not commercial that you can buy for $24,” Gearheart stated. “And that’s good for this year and the next two.”
Any commercial vehicle or company-owned vehicle, or any vehicles that don’t qualify as a passenger — one with two axles and weighing at least 8,000 pounds — will pay the regular toll rates, which are double, Gearheart said.
The authority conducted a study which predicts about 5 million fewer transactions a year, Gearheart said.
“You have to assume that people who purchase that E-ZPass will have more transactions, so the reduction has got to be the reduction in people who don’t purchase it. The reduction is the people who are doing less transactions, commercial vehicles or people who are out of state who don’t purchase an E-ZPass or don’t drive a commercial vehicle. People who spend money in the economy,” Gearheart said.
Out-of-state visitors will either not come to West Virginia or find a way around the turnpike, Gearheart stated.
“Without a doubt it, will have an impact on the economy. There’s just no way that it can’t. It’s going to make money available to build roads, but that wasn’t the purpose of the parkway’s tolls,” he said. “It was to build a road that was already built.”
The authority is authorized by legislation to sell $500 million in bonds, but the turnpike can only produce enough revenue to pay for $318 million in bonds, Gearheart said. The tolls have reached a “sweet spot” where if they are raised any more, they will generate less revenue because fewer travelers will use the turnpike.
“Which means to me, in a couple of years they will seek an increase in the E-ZPass so they can sell the balance of those bonds,” he added.