This question will possibly be answered during today’s West Virginia Parkways Authority meeting.
At the last Parkways meeting, which took place March 10, the West Virginia Department of Highways was given a two-week extension to find funding for construction to complete the remaining 14.6 miles of U.S. 35, which spans through Mason and Putnam Counties. Kokosing, the project’s construction company, also agreed to the extension, which ended today.
The two week extension came as a shock to many who believed that the tolling of U.S. 35 would not happen following a Senate vote of 21-12 against a bill that would have allowed tolls to be put on the highway earlier this month. The rejected bill would have granted $8 million to the U.S. 35 project and also called for the tolling of the highway to back up the state issued bonds for the road. Following the decision to give the DOH two additional weeks to find funding, Mason County Commissioner Rick Handley, who was in attendance at the March 10 Parkways meeting, expressed extreme disappointment.
“I just wish they would drop the whole toll idea and widen the road so residents do not have to deal with 30 plus years of tolls,” he said. “We are willing to wait for federal funding to finish the road. The people don’t want the tolls and the Senate flatly rejected the tolls.”
Handley stressed that he, along with many Mason Countians, want the new highway and the jobs that come with it, but should not be tolled.
Along with Handley, a large portion of area residents have been quite vocal against the tolls, including Jim Butler, of the Mason County Taxed Enough Already (T.E.A.) group, and resident, Gene Zopp. Butler, Zopp and Handley are all part of a core group of citizens who are currently pursuing the possibility of a lawsuit to block the U.S. 35 tolls. To help pay the bills associated with the endeavor, the group has been collecting donations and recently held a “mock toll booth” fundraiser in Point Pleasant.
When asked about the possible lawsuit, Zopp said that it was another attempt to get state officials to understand that the majority of Mason County is against tolling the highway.
“None of us like a lawsuit, but the state officials striving to force a toll on U.S. 35 won’t listen to the Senate or the local Mason County residents, and the decision was made to file a lawsuit to get their attention,” he said. “The WVDOH and Parkways are dead set on tolling our road, in spite of public sentiment or hardships for our low income families and our local businesses. The state is determined to hijack this road for a revenue producing machine via tolling and toss the safety issue out the window. With tolls, many of our local residents will divert to Old 35 along with many truckers and this road will be just as dangerous as it has been for the past 40-50 years.”
If U.S. 35 does eventually get complete and if tolls are in fact placed on the highway, representatives of the DOH and Parkways have said that residents will still have the option to travel Old 35.