Although a bill to eliminate the West Virginia Parkways Authority failed to pass, the agency still faces uncertainty beyond 2019, the Parkways general manager said.
Before the start of the session, the Parkways Authority asked legislators to take up the issue of whether to continue the tolls on the turnpike beyond 2019. Right now, the bonds are set to be paid off in May 2019.
Greg Barr, Parkways general manager, said there is uncertainty regarding contracts lasting longer than two years and with employees, who don't know if they will be there two years from now.
“At this point, we are continuing to operate as we have and still kind of being cognizant of the fact that we may or may not be continued after 2019,” he said. “We're still going to maintain the road for longterm use and not shortcut any of that but we have to be careful with contractual decisions not to extend any contracts past 2019 not knowing what the future holds. We have to be careful with how we do that and that becomes a challenge for the board as it gets closer and closer to that date.”
He said one option could be doing a contract for two years and if it's a three-year contract, putting a clause into the contract that says if Parkways no longer exists, then the Division of Highways would be responsible for the remaining years.
“Things like that are still up in the air,” he said. “It's still an issue for our employees as well who are concerned about their future. It's not good for morale for our employees. I feel bad about that, that we couldn't get a resolution to see what's coming. They're raising their families and some have kids getting ready to go to college. These are normal things families go through. The uncertainty of the future makes it kind of tough on everyone.”
He said another difficulty is replacing people who retire because potential new hires don't know if the agency is going to be here a year from now.
“Someone suggested hiring temporary workers until we know for sure what's going to happen,” Barr said. “But that only pays $9.68 an hour with no benefits. It's difficult to find highway technicians or people needed to work shift work at that rate of pay and no benefits. I hope we don't have to resort to that mode of operations.”
Barr said the situation was similar before he started working at Parkways Authority in 1989. He said when Gaston Caperton became the state's 31st governor, the state was in a financial bind with bonds due in December of 1989.
He said there was a debate at that time on whether to take the tolls off or keep them and let them sell additional bonds.
“The decision was to keep the turnpike and sell more bonds and they waited until the last minute to do that. ... It's almost like here we go again 30 years later. It may come down to 2019. I don't know what the people went through in 1989 or 1988 with worrying about their jobs but I think there were similar concerns with not knowing what the state was going to do.”
Two of Gov. Jim Justice's roads measures made it through the Legislature. Under Senate Joint Resolution 6, there was a constitutional amendment to be put on the ballot. If people voted in favor of it, then the Legislature would come back after that vote and look at ways of raising revenue to pay for that debt service, such as increasing the gas tax or DMV fees as possible options.
The second measure dealt with GARVEE bonds to raise the caps from $200 million to $500 million. Barr explained that GARVEE bonds are a pledge of future federal matching funds to pay the debt service of the bonds.
During the session, the governor had talked about the possibility of having a flat fee for West Virginians to get an EZPass, increasing DMV fees and increasing the gas tax. However, Barr said these measures did not make it through the Legislature.
Senate Bill 477, which would have increased DMV fees and the gas tax, died in House Finance. Senate Bill 484 would have allowed the governor to accomplish his goals as part of his roads plan with selling bonds and paying them with new revenue. That bill died April 5 in the Senate.
The legislation to allow tolls to be increased would provide for the increased revenue, the difference between what is collected now and the extra funds would be used to pay the debt service on the bonds. Bond proceeds would be deposited in a special revenue account in the state road fund.
Justice announced a potential budget framework reached with Senate leadership the last night of session, which would have included his proposed roads project money.
However, the Legislature passed House Bill 2018, the budget bill, which did not reflect negotiations made between Senate leadership and the governor.
Barr said tolls will stay the same.
“There are no changes at all and there are no plans on increasing the tolls,” Barr said. “They will continue as they are. The current toll rates are enough for us to do what we need to do to maintain the roads with snow removal, ice control, paving, bridge painting and bridge deck removal.”