POINT PLEASANT — A bill currently under review by committee in the West Virginia House of Delegates could give the State Parkways Authority the power to place tolls on state roads without a vote by county commissions.
House Bill 103 was in the finance committee in the House this week, according to Delegate Jim Butler (R-14th). Butler also sits on the finance committee.
“I asked, directly, Greg Barr, the director of the Parkways Authority, if Route 35 was being considered as a toll road if this bill passes, he said no…it shocked me,” Butler said. “The chairman then asked a followup question, asking, even though it’s (Route 35) not being considered now, if it passes, would this allow tolling of 35? And he (Barr), said yes.”
Butler said his interpretation of the bill in its current form would allow tolls to be placed on any state road and do so without a vote by county commissions approving the toll.
In a letter to the Point Pleasant Register, Butler broke down his interpretation of the legislation in its current form as follows:
• The current limit on the amount that the Parkways Authority can borrow, which is $200 million, has been eliminated – meaning there would be no limit on the amount to be borrowed. This is also called bonding authority -“borrowing” money that is paid back by people pay the toll or fee.
• The Parkways Authority would have authority to toll virtually any road that they choose to. Tolling of interstate highways would require special circumstances though.
• The current provision states that County Commissioners have the opportunity to approve or deny tolls on roads in their county, this bill would eliminate that option.
• The requirement for public hearings would also be modified to become a “public meeting.” This change would mean that the Authority would not have to record public comments, and would function more as an informational meeting.
• Tolls and, or, fees could be increased at any time; at the Authorities’ discretion with no approval by the legislature or the West Virginia voter.
• The Parkways Authority, upon passage of this bill, could toll a road in any location and apply that money to build or repair roads in another part of the state, or to service bonds not necessarily in the area where the toll road is located.
• Parkways Authority would also be have the new ability to apply toll money to Department of Highways projects whether or not they are toll roads. Currently Parkways money is used only for Parkways projects.
• There is also a provision that would provide for an annual fee to be collected on the registration of every passenger vehicle registered in West Virginia. Butler explained, it appears that this would be a mandatory fee, whether or not a person drives on toll roads, and in the current form, there will be penalties if that fee is not paid. Initial speculation was that the annual fee would be $8, but that number was just a preliminary figure; the amount could end up being less, more, or much more, Butler added.
Butler said he felt these provisions in the legislation gave too much authority to what he called an “un-elected agency” which is “unaccountable” to voters and “the people who end up paying the bills.”
Butler said there is considerable pressure to pass the legislation because Gov. Jim Justice wants this as part of his highways package.
When it comes to H.B. 103 in its current form, Butler feels it won’t pass, based upon his observations of the “reactions of other committee members.” Still he added, it could conceivably pass.
Language Butler said he definitely hopes to amend in the legislation, has to do with the downsizing of public participation in the tolling process.
Though he said he’s no fan of tolls: “If the people of a community want to allow the tolls and want to pay for the tolls, and it goes through the county commission with an open meetings process, then I think it’s worth considering..but to do this over the heads of the people who are going to be paying for it…?” Butler added he wouldn’t go along with that option.
Delegate Scott Brewer (D-13th), said though he is not on the finance committee, he will be reviewing this legislation. More on Brewer’s feelings on this legislation in an upcoming edition.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing, email her at email@example.com.