As the Parkways Authority prepares to commission a new traffic study in preparation to sell a new round of Turnpike bonds early next year, Authority members Thursday debated why the most recent traffic study, for $173 million of bonds sold in 2018, turned out to be so far off the mark.
The study, by CDM Smith, projected the doubling of Turnpike tolls earlier this year would cause commercial truck traffic to drop 19.6 percent. It actually has been up about 1 percent.
It also estimated that more than 800,000 drivers, both in and outside of West Virginia, would snap up the offer for super-discounted E-Z Pass transponders — at $8 a year for unlimited use of the Turnpike, compared to the normal $285 charge. Instead, Parkways sold just over 100,000, bringing the total number of unlimited use transponders in service to about 150,000.
As Authority members discussed extending CDM Smith’s contract to conduct the new traffic study, member Troy Giatras, a Charleston lawyer, got into a spirited discussion about whether the traffic engineering firm should be retained at all.
“It’s one thing to be conservative. It’s another to be wrong,” he said.
“These people were wrong. They need to be told they were wrong, and that they cost the people of West Virginia money,” Giatras added, theorizing that the Turnpike bonds might have gotten a higher bond rating if the company had made more favorable traffic projections.
Parkways General Manager Greg Barr said afterward that a couple of factors put CDM Smith into uncharted territory in trying to complete the traffic study.
“Normally, they’re not off that much, but this, as they say, was very unique,” Barr said.
He said it was unprecedented for a turnpike authority to double toll rates overnight without an extended phase-in of the rate hike.
Likewise, he said, there was no precedent for a state to offer E-Z Pass at a 97 percent discount. (The $8-a-year rate is good for three years.)
Barr said the firm did overestimate the amount of commercial truck traffic that would divert to other routes after the toll hikes.
He said the reality is that, for truck routes that require using the Turnpike, there really aren’t viable alternatives. Taking Interstate 81 to the east or Interstate 75 to the west means much higher travel time, mileage and fuel consumption, he said.
Barr said he doesn’t think the inaccurate traffic numbers hurt the 2018 bond issue, since it was relatively small, but said accurate numbers should bring favorable interest rates that could allow the 2020 bond sale to be in the $350 million to $370 million range.
“Now, when we go back to the market, we’ll have actual historical data, and as you can see, we’ve done much better than anticipated,” he said.
From January 15 — when the toll hike went into effect — through June 30, toll revenues were up about $40 million, or about 80 percent.
Barr told Authority members there aren’t many alternatives when it comes to conducting traffic studies.
“They have 70 percent of the market for this kind of work,” he said of CDM Smith. “They’re very well respected in the bonding community.”
Plans are to finalize terms for the traffic study in December, to put the Authority on a timeline to take the bonds to market as early as February.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, the Parkways Authority:
n Approved a proposal to move forward with plans to market the rights for a cellphone service provider to sponsor “Safe Phone Zones” at Turnpike travel plazas and welcome center.
The agreement would include signage ahead of those locations, advising they are safe places to pull off to use cellular devices and feature free wireless internet. There would also be similar messaging inside the travel plazas, Barr said.
As part of a contract with Travelers Marketing to find corporate sponsorships of Turnpike assets, the sponsorship could bring in between $27,000 and $45,000 for Parkways, he said.
In June, State Farm insurance entered into the first of such sponsorships, helping underwrite costs of operating Turnpike Courtesy Patrol vehicles, repainted to feature the company’s name and logo.
n Was advised that the legislative Joint Committee on Government and Finance, in September, questioned Barr about problems with increasing traffic backups at Turnpike toll plazas.
Barr said one consequence of the toll increase is that toll collectors are having to make change for almost every cash transaction.
He said he told legislators that a planned toll system upgrade will allow toll collectors to accept credit cards, and said legislators indicated the two-year timeline for implementing the upgrade was unacceptable.
Authority members discussed possible options for setting up temporary systems to accept credit cards, but took no action Thursday.