WEST VIRGINIA:E-ZPass thru the Appalachians

March 15, 2000

WEST VIRGINIA:E-ZPass thru the Appalachians

Originally published in issue 47 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Mar 2000.


Subjects:concrete asphalt de-toll remove toll plazas

Facilities:West Virginia Turnpike

Agencies:West Virginia Parkways Economic Development and Tourism Authority WVPEDTA

Locations:WV West Virginia

The West Virginia (WV) Turnpike will soon have completed a major upgrade to its toll system, which includes full-fledged E-ZPass electronic tolling. A $12m contract with TransCore has seen the WV pike’s 38 toll lanes upgraded with new lane controllers, patron fare displays, light curtains, loops and treadles. 32 toll booths have new touch screen terminals for the toll collectors. The plaza superintendents have new pan-tilt-zoom video surveillance, a whole new system for managing the toll lanes, new toll accounting, a new toll management system tying together the sensors, signals, toll terminals, patron displays, and a maintenance on-line management systems (MOMS). The patrons have new signage on the plaza canopies, new patron message displays, and the opportunity to use a transponder in lanes retrofitted for ET.

The WV Turnpike has no gates so it is installing a violation detection system using cameras to image both front and rear license plates. 22 out of the system’s 38 toll lanes are equipped to image violators.

The WV pike is primarily an interstate route and over half the toll revenue comes from heavy trucks, though it tolls vacationers cars and a small band of local commuters. The 141km (88mi) turnpike, together with the associated I-64 is the only motorway standard road through the Appalachian mountains in a distance of over 600km (370mi) between I-70/I-68 in Maryland and I-40 in the Great Smoky Mountains between Tennessee and North Carolina.

Designated I-77 for is full length and I-64 in its northern two-thirds, it is both a north-south and an east-west interstate route. As I-64 it is the shortest way between StLouis and the port cities of Virginia, and as I-77 it links Cleveland OH with South Carolina. I-79 which feeds into it at Charleston at its northern end taps traffic with western PA, upstate NY and the Toronto area.

Peak traffic volumes coincide with summer holidays and vacations with people from the Great Lakes areas traveling to the Appalachian mountains themselves, or through them to the beaches of the Carolinas.

Opened in 1954 by the West Virginia Turnpike Commission, with money raised from revenue bonds, the road cut a 4 to 5 hour journey on steep windy roads to between 90mins and 2 hrs. The Turnpike is a ball to drive – with sinuously curving plan and huge cuts and fills, and 116 bridges, but still there are sustained grades of 5%, making it comparable in steepness to central sections of the Pennsylvania Turnpike or I-70 in the Rocky Mountains. Going south it rises from Charleston alongside the wide Kanawha River, part of the lazy Mississippi river system and only 180m (600') above sea-level. But the southern-most Ghent barrier plaza at 1035m (3400') has a ski resort nearby. The plaza superintendant can swing his pan/tilt/zoom camera around to surveille the ski slopes.

From Beckley north it is basically one tight roadway built around a central Jersey barrier but in its southern and highest section it is two distinct roadways, each direction having a quite different alignment and often separated by hundreds of feet.

The WV pike must be a case study beloved of asphalt pavers. Its original pavement was mostly concrete (255mm or 10" thick) but according to a report by its consultants HNTB this soon developed troublesome cracking. Much patching and sealing goes on but the preferred remedy now is to ‘rubbelize’ the concrete, rendering it into a drainage sub-base on top of which is laid 255mm (10") of full depth asphalt. Providing a smoother quieter ride, and lane markings that drivers can see. (Stirrin’ up the concrete guys!)

HISTORY: In its first 17 years the pike was a single roadway, usually 3-lanes with a passing lane uphill, and it was a fully ‘closed’ toll system with 3 mainline barrier plazas and 12 (eventually 13) interchanges with ramp plazas. But from 1971 through 1987 the turnpike was progressively widened to 2x2-lanes plus long climbing lanes with $650m of federal money. In 1989 the state abolished the Turnpike Commission, and handed the turnpike over to its present custodian the West Virginia Parkways Economic Development and Tourism Authority (WVPEDTA) – which a local says spells out ‘We’ve Paid Her.”

The widening of the turnpike cost some $740m, with over $650m was federal highway trust fund money. The feds made their grants conditional on any remaining tolls being used for maintenance and improvement of the road. At the same time West Virginia politicians wanted to spread the turnpike’s goodies around.

In legislating the end of the West Virginia Turnpike Commission, and the creation of the successor authority to promote economic development and tourism, they were trying to use toll road revenues to subsidize or underwrite borrowing for non-transport activities. The largest project supported is the Caperton Center (named after the then governor), a splashy $10m architectural landmark building of 59k sq ft that sells local arts, crafts and food items to tourists. Alongside the turnpike in Beckley, the Caperton Center got a new interchange with the Turnpike. Another $5m has been spent by WVPEDTA supporting light manufacturing and high technology businesses to locate along the turnpike.

WVPEDTA can only get away with this by an elaborate set of segregated accounts, because federally funded roads are not supposed to divert funds to other activities. The FHWA recently refused to go along with WVPEDTA issuing toll revenue bonds for the Hatfield-McCoy recreational mountain trail system and associated tourist developments.

Killed ramp tolls

Legislation for the WVPEDTA mandated a radical change in the nature of the turnpike. All ramp tolls had to be abandoned. So in 1989 twelve ICs with ramp tolls went free. This meant that 12 legs out of 15 in the length of the turnpike became free to drive on. One ramp plaza, a major one to US-19 was quickly restored because trucks were using it to avoid the tolls entirely and crowding the alternate route.

Still, revenues dropped, and have grown at a lesser rate since. A great deal of travel on the turnpike has been untolled since 1989. This is especially so in the Beckley area and at the northern end close to Charleston. Turnpike officials say the traffic is so heavy on these untolled sections that within 10 years they may have to add lanes (to 2x3 lanes, plus climbing lanes) to handle the traffic.

Trouble is without tolls in these sections they’ll be hard put to fund the expansion.

Local lurks

The legislature also mandated unlimited trip subscription plans to appeal to local citizens. For $100/toll plaza/year, payable quarterly, patrons can buy unlimited trips through the remaining three mainline barrier toll plazas, and for the absurd amount of $5 /car/year they can get by the remaining ramp plaza at US-19 (intended mainly to intercept truck traffic.) The subscription plans are now being administered with E-ZPass toll transponders acting as simple account ID devices. About 10k subscription plan patrons have E-ZPass tags now. A similar number of transponders come through from other E-ZPass agencies in interstate traffic.

Officials say they guess they may be handling 30k tags before too long, and expect more than half to be tags of other E-ZPass agencies. When PA, OH and IN finally get electronic tolling they expect a big surge in transponders going through. VA joining E-ZPass would also be helpful in getting patrons through the toll plazas.

Toll revenues last year on an average 80k tolls/day were $53m and concession revenues brought that up to $58m. Toll collection cost $8.7m, maintenance $14m, police $2m, depreciation of $25m was charged, and debt service was $8m for a net loss of $6.4m. (Contact Jim Kelley or Greg Barr 304 926 1900)

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