Road bonds and highway toll booths

You have to feel a little sorry for Gov. Jim Justice, who has been painted into a corner by the West Virginia Legislature. Whether he likes it or not, he’s been handed authority that has become a hot potato regarding the Oct. 7 referendum on whether the state should sell $1.6 billion in bonds to improve highways and bridges.

Early voting on the referendum began last week, as Justice and several other state officials scurried to build support for it.

On its face, the issue seems clear-cut: If voters approve, the state could sell $1.6 billion in bonds to finance dozens of highway and bridge projects throughout the state. Bond holders would be paid with proceeds from tax and fee increases approved by the Legislature this year. No additional taxes should be needed.

Here in the Northern Panhandle, the bond plan is especially attractive because nearly $300 million of the proceeds would be used for local projects. They include replacement of bridges on Interstate 70 in Ohio County and upgrades to W.Va. 2 in Marshall, Wetzel and Hancock counties. But there’s a catch: Some people in our area worry that if the bond issue is approved, the state will start charging tolls on I-70.

Here’s how we got to this point: First, you have to realize state officials have two, not one, big road improvement projects in mind. The first is the statewide bond issue. The second involves the West Virginia Turnpike. Bonds issued for it previously will be retired soon. Turnpike tolls had been scheduled to come off in 2019. But earlier this year, legislators agreed to allow the Parkways Authority, which runs the turnpike, to continue charging tolls. West Virginians could avoid paying them by purchasing “EZ Pass” devices for $8 a year.

Proceeds from turnpike tolls in the future could be used for projects on that 88-mile highway — and others in the state. Under legislation extending the tolls, the authority was given power to collect them not just on the turnpike, but also on “new lanes or sections of an existing road, the replacement or construction of any bridge or tunnel, or related facilities.”

You see where this is headed. About $170 million in bridge replacement work is planned for I-70 in Ohio County. Some local people worry that would give the Parkways Authority the power to charge tolls here.

Both Division of Highways officials and the governor insist they have no such plan. I tend to believe them. Why should they want to collect tolls on I-70 if the bond issue provides money needed to repair the bridges?

Therein lies an interesting problem. What if voters don’t approve the bonds? The I-70 bridges in question are in deplorable shape. They need major repairs and/or replacement. Without the bond revenue, state officials might conclude they have no choice but to toll I-70 to keep the bridges open.

All this is my thought, by the way — not the governor’s. Though he says he has no plan now to put tolls on I-70, he refuses to rule such action out indefinitely. I don’t blame him. In a state where the fiscal situation has had as many ups and downs as ours, it would be foolish to close off options.

I’m willing to take Justice’s word for it that approving the bonds is of critical importance and will not mean tolls on I-70.

Setting up toll booths on a highway is a big deal, even if West Virginians using it escape them by purchasing the $8 passes. It’s a big enough deal that, except for the turnpike, lawmakers never should have ceded that power to the authority.

Myer can be reached at: