West Virginia Turnpike toll rates up 60% in new year

December 18, 2005
The Turnpike is part of north-south I-77 and also for 2/3rds its length of east-west I-64
The Turnpike is part of north-south I-77 and also for 2/3rds its length of east-west I-64
Greg Barr general manager
Greg Barr general manager
Toll PLaza A - pic WVA Roads
Toll PLaza A - pic WVA Roads

West Virginia Turnpike toll rates are rising - except for commuters - by an average 60% on the first of the new year. Mainline tolls for cars will rise from $1.25 to $2.00 and for 5-axle tractor trailers from $4.25 to $7.00. There are three mainline toll plazas on the 88 mile (142km) pike so the car rate per mile goes from 4.3c/mi to 6.8c/mi (2.6c/km to 4.1c/km). The 5-axle tractor-trailer rates go from 14.5c/mi to 23.9c/mi (8.7c/km to 14.3c/km).

There is no change in the 25c for cars $1.00 for tractor-trailers at the one ramp plaza on the system at North Beckley (US19).

Transponders (E-ZPass) were introduced Dec 1999 to Apr 2000.

Private vehicles of gross weight under 8,000pds (3.6t) are eligible for a commuter concession pass (called PACC). The pass uses the E-ZPass transponder and allows unlimited trips for $25/mainline toll plaza/quarter or $100/toll plaza/year paid quarterly and $95 if paid in one hit. A daily commuter (10 toll plaza passes per week) does 500 trips/year so the cost per trip with the pass paid quarterly is 20c versus $1.25 until 31 Dec 2005 and $2.00 next year. WSA estimates that about a quarter of WV commuters who could benefit from the pass still pay cash at mainline plazas and 42% at the N Beckley ramp. (Make unPC ethnic joke about hillbilly Appalachians here.)

Capital program motivated toll increases

The board of the West Virginia Parkways Authority which controls the state turnpike made the decision to hike toll rates at a meeting on Dec 14. The toll rate increase was recommended by Wilbur Smith traffic and revenue consultants as a way to support $100m of bonds for some mainline widening, a new interchange and a connector road. Except for small adjustments due to a revenue-neutral revision of toll classes in 2000, tolls have been at their present levels since 1981, a 24 year period during which.the US consumer price index rose by 103%, causing real toll rates to be halved.

Although a bit over half the traffic on the Turnpike is in-state 84% of toll revenues come from trucks and out-of-state cars. Frequent users in cars are eligible for a Parkways Authority Commuter Card which provides them with discounts on tolls of up to 85%.

The Turnpike now has 18 interchanges of which only one (North Beckley) has a toll, so a good proportion - WSA doesn't say how much - of local trips on the Turnpike are toll-free.

Trucks constitute 22k of the total 102k tolls/day (2004#s). Car traffic has continued to grow but truck traffic has been stagnant since the late 1990s. Indeed 1997/98 was the peak year for truck trips and has not since been equalled.

WSA survey

A WSA survey found 49% of the vehicles on the Turnpike were WV weekdays 39% weekends. VA vehicles are 12%/13%. OH 11%/14%, PA 5%/8%, and wide range of other states. At the mainline plazas the out-of-state representation is even larger - 56% for cars, 74% for trucks. Weekdays only 33% of trips of vehicles at the mainline plazas begin and end within WV for cars and only 14% trucks weekdays. The North Beckley ramp has much higher percentage of local usage.

This part of WV has almost zero population growth, and OH, KY and PA tiny growth but the Turnpike is expected to benefit from stronger population and employment growth in VA and the Carolinas.

Upgrade of US35 to expressway standard from Charleston northwest through OH to I-70, providing a better route to Indianapolis and Chicago is gradually proceeding which could strengthen the WVTPk, WSA says. Various coalfields roads could divert some traffic away from the Turnpike however. These are much talked about and studied but with an unwillingness to impose tolls they remaining unfunded.

The WSA report strangely says little about the stagnation of truck traffic, though it seems to us the opening of I-68 in MD may have drawn traffic north.

Tolls well below market levels

Tolls remain well below profit maximizing levels. WSA estimate that even toll rates 2.2 x 2005 rates would only decrease traffic 19% and would increase revenue 75%.

Under present toll schedules and a projected 1.8% annual increase in traffic would grow from the present 96k tolls/day to 137k in 2030 and revenue from $58m/yr to $86m. At the 60% higher toll rates traffic will grow to 125k and revenue to $121m/yr, WSA forecasts.

Capital program

Main elements of the capital program are widening and a 19th interchange and connector road.

Widening is in the central section of the Turnpike adding a lane each direction between the I-64 IC in Beckley and US19 from MM40.2 to MM47.9 - 12.4km (7.7mi). US19, a rural arterial is a major short cut between the Turnpike and I-79 through the center of the state. The segment of the Turnpike feeding it from I-64 north is overcrowded.

HNTB engineering consultants to WVTpk say: "The widening is a direct and efficient solution to the present and projected inability to adequately serve the increasing traffic demand."

The major capital projects are:

* widening from 2x2 lanes to 2x3 lanes on the mainline including eight bridges for a total of $62m project ($4m/lane-mile, $2.5m/lane-km).

* a new in Shady Spring interchange south of Beckley at MM36 is planned, together with a 5km (3 mile) connector road to US19 at WV3 - $55m is estimated cost.

Toll revenues last financial year were $57m and other revenues $7m, against which there were $37m of operating expenses and $29m depreciation and $7m of interest for losses of $10m. This on historic cost asset valuation of $603m. Replacement cost valuation would have to be at least three times this or $2b.

Privatization potential

Market based or profit maximizing toll rates would be something of the order of three to four times current rates - and two to three times the new tolls. Privatized in a longterm toll concession the Turnpike would bring somewhere between $1b and $2.5b depending on the toll rate regime permitted.

The Authority has only $107m debt outstanding.

BACKGROUND: The West Virginia Turnpike (WVTpk) is a 142km (88mi) 2x2 lane expressway. It is probably the most mountainous tollroad in the US though the Pennsylvania Turnpike might contest that title. Despite the terrain it is built with moderate curves, decent grades and long sight distances and a posted speed limit of 70mph (117km/hr). WVTpk goes almost due south from Charleston, the state capital and principal city located down in the Mississippi plain up over the Appalachian Mountains ending near Bluefields VA just above the Shenandoah Valley and I-81.

WVTpk is designated I-77 for its full length and co-designated I-64 along its northern two-thirds from Charleston to Beckley. The I-77 part is a north-south link between Cleveland, eastern Ohio and the Carolinas. I-64 going generally east-west connects St Louis MO, southern IN, and KY with Richmond and Tidewater VA. The WVTpk also feeds I-79 which runs from Charleston north by Pittsburgh to Erie PA and Buffalo NY.

Competitive quality passes through the mountains - I-68 in western MD to the north, and I-40/NC-TN to the south - are about 260km (160mi) distant giving it some of the market power of a major bridge in serving interstate traffic. That doesn't mean it doesn't face competition. The opening of toll-free I-68 in western MD in the mid-1990s coincided with a marked decline in the rate of growth of traffic on the WVTpk.

The history of the Turnpike illustrates how a road is never finished. It was launched as a bond financed closed toll road, opening in Nov 1954 as an undivided expressway of essentially one travel lane each direction (plus climbing lane sections.) It had only 6 interchanges. From 1972 to 1987 with 90% federal grant funding $741m was spend on doubling of the road to 2x23 lanes divided expressway standard with 11 extra interchanges. Tolls were continued, initially to pay off a $75m loan from the WVDOT as the matching grant. In 1994 the Turnpike built the 18th interchange - in Beckley.

Time driving between Charleston WV and I-81 in VA (c100mi) was reduced from about 4 hours to less than 2 hours with the opening of the Turnpike.

The Turnpike has three mainline barrier plazas and one remaining ramp plaza Beckley North to US19. Plaza A is 2x6 lanes. Plazas B and C are 10 lanes with four central lanes reversible. They all had lanes added in 1989.

The Turnpike when first built had a single tube 2x1 lane tunnel, named Memorial Tunnel. The roadway was subsequently relocated into a deep cutting, and the tunnel is now used for fire training and anti-terrorist exercises.

The Turnpike has three service plazas, which as well as selling fuel and food, serve as tourist advice centers. HMS Host has a service plaza franchise running from 2000 to 2010.

A 27-man troop of the WV Police patrol the Turnpike. The Turnpike has a minimum of three road service vehicles operating at all times to help motorists with disabled vehicles.

Case study in safety value of divided highways

The highway is an interesting laboratory demonstrating the safety benefits of 2x2 lanes over 2 undivided lanes. In the ten years to 1980 deaths were 102 per billion miles traveled. In the ten years to 1990 with divided highway sections opening they deaths dropped three quarters to 23/bmt. In the past ten years fatalities have halved again to 9/bmt. (from C-19 HNTB) Fatality rates are now about one-tenth of the rate of when the road was undivided. Fatality rates have dropped on roads everywhere with better cars, seatbelts and reduced drunk driving, but the dividing of the road has to account for about half the reduction in deaths.

The Turnpike was developed by a West Virginia Turnpike Commission which operated from 1947 to 1 Jun 1989. The Turnpike Commission was replaced mid-1989 by a broader West Virginia Parkways, Economic Development, and Tourism Authority, often abbreviated to West Virginia Parkways - which has been a controversial and many think dubious excursion into welfare handouts or subsidized premises for favored businesses.

Especially controversial has been the Authority's sponsorship of various local arts and crafts and theater in an outfit called Tamarack in a Caperton Center adjacent to the Beckley Service Plaza. So unpopular is this 'economic development ' activity that the Authority makes a point of insisting that toll revenues are no longer used to subsidize it.

The Parkway authority is politically controlled. The state's secretary of transport is always chair of the board. Another six members who serve 8-yr terms are appointed by the governor with senate consent. see http://www.wvturnpike.com/ TOLLROADSnews 2005-12-18

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