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Toll highways are a particularly bad idea for Eastern Panhandle

March 16, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

Toll roads have been around since Roman times, which is one reason not to lament the end of the empire.

More recently, tolls have been applied to long stretches of expensive major highways extending hundreds of miles. More recently still, states have rejuvenated the idea of tolls as a means to fund otherwise unaffordable construction projects - and peddling public-private partnerships to do the job.

This week, West Virginia joined the party, as state lawmakers moved toward greater use of tolls, mentioning U.S. 340, U.S. 522 and W.Va. 9 as serious candidates for fees.

State Sen. John Unger of Berkeley County says it amounts to the balance of the state using the Eastern Panhandle "as an ATM," a complaint that was echoed by Jefferson County voters who rejected table games at the Charles Town Races last year - in no small part because the state was making a grab for the majority of the gambling taxes.

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Under normal circumstances, toll roads are generally the mating call of states bad at managing money. Fuel taxes are in place for the very purpose of building and maintaining roads and tolls amount to double, if not triple taxation.

But West Virginia, of course, is not a wealthy state. And mountainous terrain and fields of limestone make road building an expensive proposition, especially considering the relatively sparse population. So West Virginia lawmakers get more of a pass than in Maryland, where then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich was all but ridden out of town on a rail for proposing tolls on Interstate 81.

The federal gas tax hasn't been raised in 15 years, and with soaring fuel prices that isn't likely to change unless politicians suddenly feel the need for a death wish. And these fuel prices will have another impact: People will be buying fewer gallons of gasoline, meaning that overall highway funds are likely to diminish.

Add to all this that federal lawmakers are too busy with their $50 million bridges to nowhere to put the money into spots where there is actually a need.

Naturally there is a need for better roads in the Eastern Panhandle, and Sen. Robert Byrd has seen to it that millions of dollars are being poured into the W.Va. 9 project - a fact that makes the state toll proposal even more curious. Were W.Va. 9 not getting a serious chunk of federal change, the toll proposal might make a bit more sense.

The emphasis on "a bit."

Toll roads - the Pennsylvania Turnpike comes to mind - are at their best over long stretches of highway with major east/west or north/south destinations. The typical noncommercial user may only drive on the turnpike a few times a year, so the burden is shared by a wide variety of drivers. Even commuters are generally only on the road for short jaunts with small fees - and if they still balk at the tolls, they can usually find a suitable parallel highway that is free, but perhaps with a few more traffic signals.

The Eastern Panhandle roads are different. People who live in Charles Town, Martinsburg, Hedgesville and Berkeley Springs are popping on and off these highways several times a day, because while they are the main roads, they are also service roads.

This means that if you want to go to the grocery store, you pay a toll. Take your kid to school, pay a toll. Drop off the dry cleaning, pay a toll. Certainly there is a share of "through" traffic, but most people are using 9, 340 and 522 just to live life. How do tolls on these roads constitute a justifiable burden? And at a time of environmental awareness, what of the cost - in wasted gasoline and increased emissions - of lines of cars idling at a toll booth?

The alternative to popping onto a toll road will be a disaster. The Panhandle's narrow, feeble network of back roads will become clogged and dangerous. The money that the state gains in tolls will in large part be spent on constant repair of back roads that were never meant to handle the increased traffic.

Safety has been a major point of emphasis in upgrading W.Va. 9. But to what end? So that the state makes it a toll road, and consequently the back roads become less safe than W.Va. 9 ever was?

The Eastern Panhandle simply does not have the highway system in place to handle the large numbers of vehicles that will naturally dodge the tolls. It does not have that parallel road network.

And it is certain that a secondary network would not be built. Panhandle lawmakers are quite correct to suspect that Eastern Panhandle tolls would not translate into Eastern Panhandle blacktop. It will go to other parts of the state to build their roads.

Finally, the tolls could be crippling to people already stretched by increasingly higher costs of necessities such as food and fuel. The state is ominously talking about selling highways to private companies that would be responsible for collecting tolls.

Consider the road to Dulles International Airport, which charged $1 in the '90s, and now costs more than $3 one way with plans for it to reach $4.80 by 2012.

We pay taxes with the expectation that we will get something in return, and one of those somethings is roads. There is something inherently dishonest about this dual level of taxation where we pay taxes and then pay again for highways, rescue services, vehicle registrations and any other number of fees/taxes enacted by sloppy, undisciplined lawmakers, for whom one round of revenue just isn't enough. West Virginia should reconsider this horrid idea.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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