West Virginia Senate cuts interchange project

| Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The West Virginia Senate approved a bill Wednesday, Feb. 15, that would eliminate a mandated $55 million interchange along the state’s turnpike in Raleigh County. The bill now heads to the House.

The Senate vote came two days after a circuit court judge’s decision to roll back tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike.

Senators voted 30-2 to rescind a 2004 law that requires the state’s Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority to build an interchange at Shady Spring.

A $62 million lane-widening project near the North Beckley interchange and other road and bridge work remain.

The Parkways Authority said the cost to build the Shady Spring interchange led them to implement new tolls Jan. 1 at each of the turnpike’s three toll plazas.

The rates were increased from $4.25 to $7 for five-axle trucks and from $1.25 to $2 for passenger vehicles.

On Monday, Feb. 13, Kanawha County Circuit Judge Irene Berger granted a temporary injunction sought by 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.

The bill – SB557 – was amended to remove a provision that called for returning tolls to the amounts charged last year.

Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, said he worried lawmakers could be overstepping the line by mandating the toll prices be lowered.

“We don’t want to affect the bond rating of the state,” Chafin told The State Journal.

The measure, which now heads to the House, is one of several efforts under review related to the Parkways Authority.

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 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, 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.

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