West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice Downplays Interstate 70 Toll Road Concerns During Northern Panhandle Visit
Makes stops in?Wheeling and Weirton
WHEELING — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said Wednesday Ohio County residents should be more afraid of the condition of the area’s bridges than of paying possible tolls on Interstate 70.
Justice sought to placate concerns about tolling on I-70 during a town hall forum Wednesday afternoon in the Glessner Auditorium at Oglebay Park’s Wilson Lodge. The purpose of the forum was to discuss the state’s upcoming road bond referendum set for Oct. 7, and a major rehabilitation of the bridges along I-70 in Ohio County is the largest project set to be paid for by the road bond.
After the event, Justice said passage of the bond referendum would be a good start toward improving the state’s finances.
He added severance tax revenues also are expected to continue to improve, “and with all the different things that are going to happen in West Virginia, we won’t need to toll any place.”
“It is not an issue at all,” Justice said. “It’s just a way for people to grandstand and get their name in the paper. At the end of the day, that is not an issue on my radar in any way, shape, form or fashion. We need to forget the tolling. That’s all there is to it.
“Be concerned about an asteroid hitting, and quit worrying about the tolling. I mean if the bridge falls down…it falls into the middle of the river… then they have something to worry about. “
During the town hall discussion, Justice said the issue of tolling I-70 has not even been discussed by state officials, and that “no one has ever mentioned to me what the absolute, concrete word on toll is.”
But Justice also said he also could “never say never” to tolling I-70.
“I could tell you today, forevermore, forget the possibility of us ever tolling anything,” he said. “But nobody being truthful could tell you that we are not in the (future) of the world ever going to toll anything.”
And Justice reminded those attending if a toll were imposed, West Virginia residents could purchase an “E-Z Pass” for $8 a year that would allow them to travel toll-free on any road in the state.
A large number of people attended the public town hall on Wednesday in Wheeling, including nearly 20 coal miners employed by Murray Energy wearing work attire.
The forum initially had been set to take place in the Fort Henry Room at Wilson Lodge, but was moved to the Glessner Auditorium to accommodate the crowd.
Justice was about 20 minutes late for the event. Among those speaking prior to his arrival were West Virginia Secretary of Transportation Tom Smith; Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association and chairman of the West Virginia Business and Industry Council; Mike Clowser, executive director of the Contractors Association of West Virginia; and Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
All those present stressed there were “no downsides” to a “yes” vote on the road bond referendum, and that it would not raise taxes if passed.
The Legislature already approved increases to Division of Motor Vehicle fees and gasoline taxes that would generate revenue to repay the bonds.
After his stop in Wheeling, Justice moved on to a second town hall forum in Weirton.
The referendum going before voters on Oct. 7 asks them whether they want to give the West Virginia Legislature authority to sell bonds and borrow up to $1.6 billion to begin a slate of proposed road projects throughout the state totaling $1.9 billion.
Justice and other state officials estimate about 48,000 jobs would be created by the projects, and about $200 million in additional payroll tax revenue would be collected.
They say now is the time to borrow the money and do the work in bulk, as interest rates are low.
Early voting for the Oct. 7 special election begins Friday and continues on weekdays and Saturdays through Oct. 4.
This week, Wheeling and Moundsville city councils approved resolutions supporting the road bond amendment.
“No additional taxes will be needed, as the fee increases are already in effect,” Moundsville Vice Mayor David Wood said. “There’s nothing new as far as that road bond issue. … The Legislature already approved the mechanisms. Marshall County is scheduled for 12 new projects alone, and the Northern Panhandle’s looking at 46.”
Marshall County Commissioner Scott Varner said Wednesday since the money was already earmarked for use by the state, approval by the voters will ensure the work can be done in a timely manner.
“Our infrastructure’s in significant need,” Varner said.
“Now it’s a formality of getting the citizens to approve it. If they don’t, it’s a lesser pot of money they have to work with. This will give them a bigger infusion of money to get as much work done as possible, and it will free up extra money to do some secondary road work that typically gets put on the back burner, as primary roads take up the majority of the monies.”
Staff writer Alan Olson contributed to this story.