West Virginia lucky to have only one toll road

Vehicles move through a toll booth on the West Virginia Turnpike.

Ayear ago, people driving the West Virginia Turnpike paid $6 in tolls to get from Charleston to Bluefield — three tolls of $2 each. This year the tolls have doubled, so the one-way trip now costs $12, or $24 for a round trip.

The higher price of tolls apparently has not had a significant impact on travel on the Turnpike. Doug Ratliff, director of tolls for the West Virginia Turnpike Authority, says traffic on the Turnpike as measured by transactions at the four toll booths — the three on the Turnpike itself and one at an exit at Beckley — are up about half a percent this year.

The Turnpike Authority voted last year to double tolls on the 88-mile road in order to pay for road improvements. It was the first increase since 2009, when tolls went from $1.25 to $2.

Doing the math, that's a 220 percent increase in a dozen years.

The Turnpike is West Virginia's only toll road, and it is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Among other things, the West Virginia Division of Highways doesn't want to take over its steep roadways and numerous bridges with no corresponding increase in its funding.

The Turnpike itself came into being shortly after World War II when a modern (for then) two-lane road was needed to connect Charleston, Beckley and Bluefield. This was before the beginning of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System that gave the state interstates 64 and 77, among others.

The Mountain State likely will have no other public toll roads or bridges in the near future, although they will be the norm for larger metropolitan areas. Two new bridges at Louisville have tolls, and tolls are expected for a new bridge in Cincinnati to replace or complement the overworked Brent Spence Bridge, which carries interstates 71 and 75 across the Ohio River. Building a new bridge there would have to consider traffic loads and the congested area around the approaches.

That bridge is estimated to cost $3.5 billion. Ohio allows bridge tolls, but Kentucky law prohibits tolls on bridges crossing into Ohio, so funding is at a standstill for now.

Huntington's Ohio River bridges had tolls for a while. Both the West 17th Street Bridge and the 6th Street Bridge charged a toll for crossing after the West 17th Street Bridge opened in the late 1960s, but they were removed in 1978 to secure funding for what would be known as the East Huntington Bridge.

Apparently the increase in charges on the West Virginia Turnpike hasn't diminished traffic on the road, so there is no market reason to reduce or eliminate them. It's a shame, though, that it is the only road in the state that charges people to drive it in addition to the gasoline taxes and other taxes that people already pay to drive on free roads.

As long as tolls are needed to pay for Turnpike upkeep, they will stay. As long as they are used for that purpose, the public can accept them. Should a desperate governor or Legislature eye them as an easy slush fund for non-Turnpike-related projects, things will change.

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