The meeting, which supposed to take place Friday, has now been scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 23 in Charleston. Wednesday also marks the same day that the project’s $187 million low bid is set to expire.
The purpose of the upcoming meeting is to decide whether or not tolls should be used to finance the completion of U.S. 35. At this time, 14.6 miles of highway, which runs through Mason and Putnam Counties, remains incomplete. Despite a rescinded vote from the Mason County Commission in November, which pulled their support of tolling the highway as a means of finance, plans to toll U.S. 35 forged ahead. U.S. 35 public hearings regarding the tolls also were held in both Mason and Putnam Counties.
In addition to tolling the highway, last fall plans to finish the 14.6 mile stretch were announced and included the sale of approximately $100 million in federal bonds and approximately $31 million in federal and state funds. The toll project was projected to take in approximately $83 million in toll revenue bonds, which would be paid off in 30 plus years from the money received at the toll plazas in Mason and Putnam Counties.
However, plans were shaken up on Feb. 3 when DOH Secretary Paul Mattox announced that the tolls are now projected to produce only $52 million in revenue. In addition, it was reported that just $35 million of the generated toll funds would directly be used for highway construction. The new estimates caused the Parkways Authority to delay their meeting to approve the bond sale, which was originally planned to hit the market at the end of 2010.
In response to the report that $40 million was needed to finish the project, State Senators Mike Hall (R-Putnam) and Karen Facemyer (R-Jackson) issued a press releasing that said tolls were not the answer to finance the completion of U.S. 35. The release also suggested that it was time to “look for surplus funds to complete the road.”
Hall also released the following statement on Feb. 4: “As a result of the shortage of funds due to the current bond market and the fact that the toll bond proposal would bring limited funds, I am opposed to seeking to find $40 million to bridge the gap to toll the road...Sen. Facemyer and myself commend the efforts of the Governor and others who are looking for alternative ways to build the road without tolling. However, we feel that more needs to be done by state officials to complete the road as soon as possible. Tolling the road would cause an economic headwind that would stifle the growth of Putnam and Mason Counties. I further strongly believe that the completion of Route 35 is a West Virginia issue, not just an issue for residents who live along the road. So much commerce comes out of the midwest that utilizes that road, that if diverted to other destinations there would be significant hindrances to economic growth not only in our area but in the state as well.”
Many Mason County residents have been against the tolling of U.S. 35 since the idea was first proposed. Gene Zopp, a long-time Mason County resident, has been very vocal on the issue.
“What is a foregone conclusion is if Parkways doesn’t get a toll on U.S. 35, then they will be hard pressed to toll any other additional roads in West Virginia. Parkways is scared to death there will not be a reason to sustain their existence as a non-elected state entity who can borrow money without the voters’ consent and then commit us to pay it back. How much sense does it make to give Parkways $40 million to put 30-40 years of tolling on the local people who cannot afford it, when that same amount of money could almost complete the road without a toll,” Zopp said. “Mason County residents say ‘build it as we go just like Ohio has done their part of U.S. 35.’ We also say that the majority in Mason County says just leave it like it is if there is no other way to come up with the funds except by tolling it.”
County Commissioner Rick Handley, who planned to attend Friday’s canceled meeting, said that he hopes other means of funding U.S. 35 is being discussed.
“I’m hoping that what (the Parkways Authority) is doing is finding a way to finance Route 35 without tolls,” Handley said. “We are willing to wait to get funding. I’d rather wait five years and not get stuck with tolling it for 30 years.”
In addition, Handley said that he believed it would be a political mistake for acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to push the tolling of U.S. 35 when the majority of Mason Countians are against the toll.
Handley also announced that he plans to attend the upcoming Parkways Authority meeting.