Ways to pay for roads discussed

WHEELING – Residents attending a meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways in Wheeling Tuesday indicated they support tolls, increases in motor registration fees and additional taxes on alternative fuel vehicles to pay for maintenance and construction of West Virginia’s roads.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed the commission last year and charged members with generating ideas on how to best fund the state’s highway system.

It is estimated West Virginia needs more than $1 billion in new revenue each year to maintain its roads, and members met Tuesday at Oglebay Park’s Wilson Lodge to seek ideas from the public on how to obtain the needed revenue. Forty-seven people participated in an interactive survey assessing their feelings on different funding mechanisms.

When asked whether they would support continuing tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike to help pay for new road projects, 85 percent said they “strongly agreed.” Tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike generate about $81.2 million, with 75 percent of the revenue coming from out-of-state vehicles, according to information provided by the commission.

Sixty-nine percent of the respondents indicated they also would support tolls on other roads to pay for their maintenance or new construction.

Owners of alternative vehicles do not pay any user fees or gasoline taxes for use of the state’s roads, and commission members suggested a $200 per year fee for natural gas, electric and hybrid vehicles could generate $1.1 million for the state annually. When asked if they would support such a fee, 74 percent of respondents said they “strongly agreed.”

Sixty-four percent of those attending also supported increasing the state’s motor vehicle license and registration fees to bring them more in line with neighboring states. This practice could generate $75 million annually, according to the commission.

Increasing West Virginia’s consumer sales tax by 1 percent and directing the proceeds to the State Road Fund could generate about $200 million annually, they continued. Forty percent of participants “strongly agreed” this should be done, while another 36 percent “somewhat agreed.” The remaining 24 percent “strongly disagreed.”

Respondents were less supportive of increasing gasoline and diesel fuel taxes. A total of 43 percent agreed, while 21 percent “somewhat agreed,” 11 percent “somewhat disagreed” and 26 percent “strongly disagreed.”

During a public comment session, local residents suggested charging fees to out-of-state motorists using West Virginia’s roads.

“One of the things that makes West Virginia so special is its mountains – and it’s also what makes its roads harder to maintain,” said Walter “Fuzz” LaRue, field representative for the West Virginia State Building and Construction Trades Council. “It takes a lot more money to build roads in West Virginia, considering the whole state is in the Appalachian Mountains … The roads up here are getting ate up – mostly because of the big trucks from out of state. When you look at fees, you have to look at those for out-of-state people with big rigs. This gas work and construction is going to go on for another 10 to 15 years … and this is on top of the day-to-day usage.”

Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that 45 million people took day trips on West Virginia’s roads in 2010.

“And in the Northern Panhandle – 9.2 million drove through the panhandle,” he added. “It is our responsibility to fund the roads for tourism, as well as for our day-to-day lives. But I would ask the commission to be creative in how they tax and consider 45 million people are coming into the state and then leaving. There has to be some way to access that revenue.”

O’Brien encouraged the commission to consider that toll booths generate a “substantial amount of money,” and 85 percent of the resulting revenue comes from out of state.