West Virginia Governor Jim Justice Says Tolls ‘A Possibility’ on Interstate 70
WHEELING — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said it is “a possibility” Interstate 70 through Ohio County could become a toll road after a $172 million rehabilitation of bridges on the highway — but only if additional funds are needed.
Justice and members of his cabinet addressed issues pertaining to his “Roads to Prosperity Highway Program,” and an upcoming road bond referendum on Oct. 7, during a teleconference with state media on Thursday.
Justice’s words came a day after West Virginia Division of Highways District 6 Engineer Gus Suwaid said there would be no tolling on I-70 after proposed work was completed. The I-70 project in Ohio County is the largest project on a list of $1.9 billion in road projects slated to begin if the bond referendum passes Oct. 7.
“Tolling is a possibility on Interstate 70, but I don’t know if we’ll need it at all,” Justice said.
This year the West Virginia Legislature passed legislation providing state residents with an option to pay an $8 annual flat toll fee in the state and be able to travel on any state highway.
“In the worst case — for $8 annually … you would be able to drive anywhere in West Virginia for free,” he said. “So the long and short, if things go well, we will not need any more tolling in any shape or fashion. But I would not want us to commit to that and say never, never. As the fallback, the maximum exposure on anybody is $8 .”
Justice began his comments by saying the Oct. 7 election “is the single biggest vote West Virginia will make in the history of the state. He said passage of the road bond referendum is necessary as the state is losing population and families are being fragmented.
He explained passage of the road bond would give the Legislature authority to authorizing the sale of up to $1.6 billion in state bonds over the next four years, and these funds would be used to begin the large slate of road projects now while interest rates are low.
The bonds would be repaid from four pots of money in the state, according to Justice. The Legislature this year passed legislation raising the privilege and gas taxes in West Virginia, as well as vehicle registration and licensing fees and turnpike tolls.
The increases are expected to generate about an extra $130 million for the state, which is earmarked for paying back the loans. There will be no additional increases in taxes, according to Justice and other state officials.
“Good ideas come to me from the Lord,” Justice said. “I take credit for the bad ones …
“If you vote against this for being a tax increase … that is wrong, so West Virginian, and so untrue. What is going to happen here is if we pass this, we will have the creation of tens and tens of thousands of jobs.”
State officials aren’t certain how many jobs would be created through passage of the road bond, but they are estimating 48,000.
Tom Smith, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Transportation, said now is the time to make the financial investment in West Virginia’s infrastructure. But he wasn’t certain yet what the interest rate might be on repayment of the bonds, or how long the obligation would be for West Virginia.
“Those have not yet been pinned down, but we have been in consultations with advisers,” Smith said. “We are thinking the interest rate might be 3 percent.”
The term on most general obligation bond is 18 to 20 years, according to Smith. And he expects work on most of the proposed projects to begin within the next year.
“Better roads bring us a better way of life,” Justice said. “Better schools bring us a better way of life, and safer schools bring us a better way of life.
“When you are trying to attract people to the state, you can give them money or incentives, but they won’t come if there is not a good way of life. Roads are a major component of that, and without them you will never get them to come. ”
Justice said he wants the road bond referendum to pass with 80 to 90 percent of the vote to send a message to the Trump administration that West Virginia is willing to do its part to help itself out of an economic downturn.
Justice said the Trump administration is “actively trying to help West Virginia,” and that he is the reason Trump wants to assist the state.
“At some time there is going to be a federal infrastructure program coming down the pike, and West Virginia will get its lion’s share of the money,” Justice said. “The money to finish Corridor H is right at our fingertips., and it will have the biggest economic impact on our state than any highway we have.”