Judge freezes West Virginia tolls; bills seek further restrictions

| 2/15/2006

The agency that oversees the West Virginia Turnpike has been ordered to return tolls for five-axle trucks to $4.25 and for passenger vehicles to $1.25.

Those were the toll rates before a state agency voted Dec. 14, 2005, to increase tolls at each of the turnpike’s three toll plazas by 65 percent for large trucks and 60 percent for cars. The higher tolls went into effect Jan. 1, but have been rolled back until further notice.

Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Irene Berger blocked the state Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority from collecting the higher toll rates when she granted a temporary injunction Monday, Feb. 13.

Berger issued the temporary injunction at the request of businesses that use the 88-mile toll route that runs from Charleston to Princeton, The Associated Press reported. She agreed with them that the public did not receive sufficient public notice when the hikes were proposed.

The toll decrease is effective immediately. It also halts any other increases in tolls until further order by the courts.

Parkway officials said the toll boosts were needed because a 2004 state law mandated projects including a new $55 million interchange at Shady Spring in Raleigh County, a $62 million lane-widening project near the North Beckley interchange and other road and bridge work.

Since the rate hikes took effect Jan. 1, public furor has fueled both a civil suit and a bundle of bills in the West Virginia Legislature.

One bill before the full Senate would rescind the increases. Sponsored by Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, the measure – SB557 – also would remove the mandated interchange at Shady Spring.

Most lawmakers were unaware the Shady Spring project was included in the 2004 legislation, or that it would lead to higher tolls, The Charleston Gazette reported.

Two other bills would eventually place the turnpike under the jurisdiction of the state Division of Highways.

House Majority Leader Rick Staton, D-Wyoming, and Delegate Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, want to prohibit the Parkways Authority from refinancing bonds or issuing any more bonds once current bonds have been repaid.

After the bonds are paid off, the bill – HB4343 – would take all tolls off the turnpike, terminate the Parkways Authority and hand the road over to the Division of Highways.

Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, also has introduced a measure that would roll back tolls. In addition, her bill – HB4344 – would pay off bonds and turn the authority over to the highway department.

Staton and Browning also have joined to offer another bill – HB4110 – that would force the authority to hold public hearings in all turnpike counties before raising tolls.

“If they can justify they need the money, they can go before the public,” Browning told The Gazette.

Each of the House bills is in committee.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor