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Diane Mufson: No end in sight for tolls on state's turnpike

Sep. 23, 2013 @ 09:15 AM

This summer my husband and I, like thousands of others, traveled on the West Virginia Turnpike and marveled at how easily the turnpike toll plazas can develop annoying bottlenecks. It made us question buying an E-ZPass, the prepaid toll system used in West Virginia and 14 other northeastern and central states.

Shortly after that trip, we realized that since we would be driving to Illinois in August to meet our newest grandchild (yes, he is adorable), an E-ZPass would be helpful. We recalled that the Chicago area had many toll plazas, but what we hadn't realized was how toll collection has become a major industry. Regardless of what politicians or highway planners tell us today, there is no end in sight for tolls on major U.S. roadways or West Virginia's Turnpike.

We were delighted to have this multi-state E-ZPass as we traveled through Illinois with "open-tolling" meaning that many lanes of traffic continue moving at the speed limit. Multiple cash lanes, which are clearly marked, direct the unfortunate souls without E-ZPasses to where they can patiently wait in line, as one does at the West Virginia Turnpike toll plazas.

At the same time that we were receiving our first e-mail from the E-ZPass authority telling us how much money we had used on tolls, Tom Miller's recent Opinion column, "Higher fees, new fees commission' solutions to state road fund issue," appeared in this newspaper.

It seems that West Virginia needs over a billion dollars to upgrade and maintain our roads. One way to do this is to increase the turnpike tolls that are supposed to end in 2019. The new plan would continue the tolls on this highway for another three decades.

One of the rationales for keeping the tolls on our turnpike is that three quarters of the monies are generated from out-of-state drivers. Long-distance travelers are not likely to change their usual travel route to avoid tolls, so this is realistic reasoning.

No doubt somewhere in the history of toll collection, there are a few instances where authorities realized that the bonds used to fund the building of the road, bridge or tunnel have been fully paid off (maybe the 10-cent fee on the old Sixth Street Bridge in Huntington) and tolls were no longer needed. Yet, toll collection agencies know a good thing when they see it.

Back in my youth there was a toll bridge that led to my small hometown. Frequently, there were hints that the bridge authority was considering removing the 25-cent toll. Having not been on that bridge in ages, I checked on the Internet. No surprise; it now has a $2 fee.

I'm not fond of paying tolls, but there are times that there is little that the public can do but go with the flow. Additionally, using an E-ZPass means that you always have a certain amount of money in the E-ZPass system, but some toll payments may be discounted.

The truth is that the West Virginia Turnpike is likely to be collecting escalating tolls from us until my newborn grandson is middle-aged. There is no end in sight for tolls on our turnpike.

Since that is the reality, the least the Turnpike Authority can do is update the toll collection process making sure that E-ZPass holders have rapid access through the toll plazas and other travelers do not get caught in massive traffic jams simply because money must be paid.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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