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'Pike revenues drop, but still no talk about hiking tolls
[July 11, 2008]

'Pike revenues drop, but still no talk about hiking tolls

(The Register-Herald Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jul. 11--BLUEFIELD -- Diminishing revenues collected on the West Virginia Turnpike could prompt its governing board to make some "immediate changes," but no one is using the dreaded T-word -- not yet, anyway -- as a means of leveraging more cash.

Over an 11-day period sandwiched around the Fourth of July, the Princeton-to-Charleston highway witnessed a marked decline in revenues compared to the same period last year.

Overall, the number of passenger cars passing through the tollbooths fell by 6.5 percent, while commercial trucks were down by 3.5 percent, Manager Greg Barr told the West Virginia Parkways Authority in Thursday's monthly meeting, held at Bluefield City Hall.

Generally, the past few months have seen a 5 percent overall dip in Turnpike transactions, and that translates into a $250,000 monthly setback, Barr said.

Barr attributed the loss to the escalating fuel prices -- both gasoline and diesel -- and warned that if the pricing situation doesn't stabilize, and the decline in transactions worsens, the Turnpike will have to resort to even more penny-pinching.

"We'll make immediate changes and come back to the board and recommend some action," he said.

Afterward, the manager emphasized his remarks weren't to be interpreted as a plea to raise tolls, which haven't gone up since 1981, save for a short-lived hike two years ago that was removed by a Charleston judge in a class-action lawsuit by some trucking outfits.

"It means we would have to revisit our construction, maintenance program for this fiscal year and equipment needs," he said.

"If we were short $500,000, we'd defer the start of a project, defer the purchase of some equipment. We'd use lease financing for requipment and look for ways to make up for that shortage of funds. We'd make sure we've got our house in order on the Turnpike."

Gasoline was retailing for $4.09 a gallon Thursday in Bluefield and was 5 cents higher in the Beckley area.

Barr suggested the rising costs explain why traffic is down on the 88-mile toll road, and one strong piece of evidence is that twice as many cars, percentage-wise, were absent this year than last at the toll booths.

"Trucks have to go, as long as the economy is doing OK," he noted.

Yet, how long can this economy hold up, he wondered, as consumers keep paying more for utility bills, food and other essentials.

"There is pressure on families to make ends meet," he said.

"I think all that comes into play. When you get in that car and press on that pedal, or fill up your tank for the lawn mower and it costs $10, you say, 'wait a minute.'"

A year ago, the Public Resources Advisory Group suggested the Turnpike needs to raise its tolls 40 percent this year and again in 2013, or see millions of dollars in highway work be kept on the shelf.

"Keep in mind, when they did that study, they were still saying, and had in play, the widening project at Beckley," he said.

At one stage, the Turnpike wanted to add two lanes from the North Beckley Exit to the I-64-77 divide.

"We really need to pave Beckley, that 8-mile stretch, because it's old concrete that needs to be paved," he said.

"We don't have the money to do that right now. As far as the widening, I don't see that in the near term."

Moreover, the Legislature withdrew its initial imposition for a Shady Spring interchange, another item that had figured in the PRAG study, he noted.

One bright note came with the board's final assent to dumping of Federal Guaranty Insurance Co. as its insurer for $59.1 million in outstanding bonds, saving some $330,000 a month, after the firm's troubles in the sub-prime fallout sent the toll road's rates up to 10 percent.

"If that had stayed in place, we would have been hurting for certain by the end of the year," Barr said. "That would have been over $3.5 million a year."

In sync with this, the board agreed to transfer a $1 million highway and bridge contingency fund to the highway fund.

Lacking a carrier, he said, the Turnpike now relies on its underlying bond rating, which is Double-a-minus and Double-a-plus.

Authority Chairman Joe Martin said the action taken in this state is in keeping with a national trend.

"Municipal issues are shedding bond insurers," Barr said. "It's tough on insurers that don't have a good rating."

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