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Counties talk Turnpike toll funds

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CHARLESTON, WV -

Four southern West Virginia counties could do a lot with $1 million.

Mercer County Commission President Mike Vinciguerra told lawmakers that kind of money would go a long way toward getting water and sewage for everyone in his county.

Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, proposed a way to disburse a portion of West Virginia Turnpike toll funds to the four counties it's in, but that idea didn't go far in the legislative session last year.

It was pushed to a resolution for lawmakers to study in the interim, between sessions, and was discussed in a July 23 meeting, where Chafin said he'd already paid a few hundred dollars this year in Turnpike tolls.

He called the tolls a "real problem," and an "economic deterrent," saying his suggestion of deferring $1 million for each of the four counties "wouldn't hurt the books much at all."

Jennifer Sayre, Kanawha County manager for the Kanawha County Commission, said the county would like Turnpike funds for emergency service needs since 28 of the Turnpike's 88 miles are in Kanawha County.

Sayre said Kanawha County Metro 911 had dispatched 192 accidents along the Turnpike in the past 12 months, so the money could go toward equipment and resources for those emergency responders.

Fayette County Commission President Matthew Wender told lawmakers his commission supports the proposal that would allocate a portion of Turnpike revenue to the four counties. He said the commission fully supports Tamarack, but when it opened in 1995, any Turnpike funds that had been allocated for economic development in the counties "virtually ceased."

"While the tolls have risen, participation in economic development has disappeared," Wender said. "Our southern counties have increasing financial challenges with declining coal severance revenues, increasing regional jail costs, removal of dilapidated structures, rampant substance abuse and overall increases in local government, all of which further challenge local efforts to diversify the local economy."

Judy Radford of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority spoke on behalf of Raleigh County. She told lawmakers business parks have been developed in the area, but there are infrastructure needs along with a timing issue.

"If we could get funds we could apply to those projects, we would be more ready for projects when they come."

Radford also told lawmakers the Summit Bechtel Reserve is bringing community leaders to their backyard.

"We want to send a message to people that we're trying to attract industry," she said. "If our community is dirty or looks dirty, it sends a negative message."

Greg Barr, general manager of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, provided a lot of Turnpike history during the meeting. He said when he started working for the authority in its accounting department in 1989, old bonds created in the 1950s were still outstanding.

"I applaud all of you for doing some proactive and creative thinking about what the formula should be when the bonds are paid off in 2019," Barr said.

He said through the years he's seen $83 million in Turnpike funds spent on Corridor L in Raleigh and Fayette County and other money go toward better roads in Mercer County and the new Chelyan Bridge in Kanawha County.

Barr explained that bond covenants and the agreement with the Federal Highways Administration tightly restrict how toll revenues can be spent – on debt service, operation and maintenance of the Turnpike.

"I say all this because there are creative minds in this room," Barr said. "Perhaps sitting the right people down at the table, there's a way around some of the covenants and trust indenture.

"May of 2019 is only six years away, and we've been at this 24 years."