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Diane W. Mufson: W.Va. Turnpike toll changes start now

September 13, 2018

Years ago, after getting stuck at a massive West Virginia Turnpike toll booth back-up, we decided to buy an E-ZPass. It works in over a dozen states, some of which we drive to or through.

We haven’t traveled the Turnpike this past year, but when an article in this newspaper appeared recently saying, “WV E-ZPass customers get enrolled in new option,” it was time to understand more about new West Virginia Turnpike tolls.

Most toll road tolls never end; they just increase. That is the bottom line for the WV Turnpike, which has set new fees. Tolls at each plaza are now $2; beginning Jan. 1, 2019, they will be $4. But the West Virginia Parkways Authority has decided that current E-ZPass holders will automatically be enrolled in a special program that will charge $24 and permit unlimited travel on the WV Turnpike through Dec. 31, 2021.

That’s a great deal if you travel the Turnpike, but E-ZPass holders who don’t plan to use the Turnpike in the next three years, and don’t want to be charged $24, have until 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, to contact the WV Parkway Authority by phone 800-206-6222 or email customerservicecenter@wvturnpike.com. It’s not clear whether the $24 applies if you purchase a new E-ZPass and transponder after this date. One informed source suggests that it will.

Publicity about the proposed toll changes has been scant. The Charleston Gazette-Mail website reported that the “Proposed toll increases are needed to pay off an anticipated $500 million bond issue.” The Princeton (W.Va.) Times reported that the new revenue will help pay for road construction in the southern part of the state, including “completing a road linking Mercer County’s Bridge to Nowhere,” planned to be part of the King Coal Highway, I-73/74.

The Turnpike has a storied history, and those of us who traveled on it when it was a two-lane road know how dangerous it was. Begun in 1952 to connect Charleston and Princeton, it was an expensive and dangerous engineering marvel. The Memorial Tunnel was a particular challenge.

Before Interstates 64, 77 and 79 were completed, Turnpike traffic was limited. When interstate traffic blossomed, so did accidents and tie-ups. The major Turnpike highway upgrade was started in 1976 and completed in 1987.

The Turnpike continues to need repairs and updating, but comments in the Princeton Times illustrate confusion about the effect of increased tolls. One study by the Parkways Authority indicates that there would be about 5 million fewer transactions a year at the toll booths. Other sources suggest that with the influx of $24 from every WV E-ZPass holder, money would flow in immediately.

About 65 percent of toll revenue reportedly comes from out-of-state vehicles. My guess is that those who can will look for north-south alternatives to the expensive tolls and construction tie-ups on the Turnpike. Hopefully, we are not cutting off our nose to spite our face. Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, who attended the meeting on the toll increases, must have had similar thoughts, saying, “Out-of-state visitors will either not come to West Virginia or find a way around the Turnpike.”

With little information being shared with the public, long-range effects are unclear. What is clear is that one must opt out of the WV Turnpike’s E-ZPass plan starting before Sept. 14, or automatically pay $24 for unlimited use of the Turnpike for three years. In the long run, we’ll all pay more when using the Turnpike, which hopefully, with the new construction, will be safer and less problematic.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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