Sometimes it can feel good to be wrong.
The West Virginia Parkways Authority, which operates the West Virginia Turnpike, was told doubling tolls would lead to a decline in traffic. It didn’t.
According to an article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a study done by the consulting firm CDM Smith before the tolls were doubled earlier this year said the increase in the fee would cause commercial truck traffic to drop 19.6%. It actually has been up about 1%.
As Parkways General Manager Greg Barr noted, CDM Smith overestimated the amount of commercial truck traffic that would divert to other routes after the toll hikes. There just aren’t any viable alternatives that would not cost trucking companies more in travel time, mileage and fuel consumption, he said.
The CDM Smith study also estimated that more than 800,000 drivers, both inside and outside of West Virginia, would gobble up the discounted E-Z Pass transponders at $8 a year for unlimited use of the turnpike, a fee far below the normal $285 charge. Instead, the Parkways Authority sold just over 100,000, bringing the total number of unlimited use transponders in service to about 150,000.
The study’s off-base predictions would be slightly amusing if it weren’t for the possibility they cost the turnpike authority money, and not just for the study itself.
“These people were wrong. They need to be told they were wrong, and that they cost the people of West Virginia money,” authority member Troy Giatras, a Charleston lawyer, said. He theorized the $173 million of bonds the authority sold in 2018 might have gotten a higher bond rating if the company had made more favorable traffic projections.
Barr said he didn’t think the inaccurate traffic numbers caused problems for the 2018 bond issue, as it was relatively small. He said accurate numbers should bring favorable interest rates that could allow the 2020 bond sale to be in the $350 million to $370 million range.
“Now, when we go back to the market, we’ll have actual historical data, and as you can see, we’ve done much better than anticipated,” he said.
The next step for the turnpike authority is to decide whether CDM Smith, which is well respected in the bond markets, will be hired to prepare information for the next bond sale.
Putting that question aside for now, the good news is that raising the tolls did not cause the turnpike authority to suffer a significant drop in commercial traffic. Instead, the trucking industry was able to absorb the cost despite the pain it caused.
The turnpike is a self-sustaining operation. Although there have been calls time and again to remove the tolls and place the road under the Division of Highways, the DOH says it could not accept that responsibility without a large infusion of cash.
The 88-mile road has dozens of bridges. The maintenance costs for them alone, let alone the highway itself, would divert a large amount of money from other necessary road projects in the state.
The turnpike remains one of the least favorite four-lane roads in West Virginia, thanks to its steep grades and sharp turns, often in the same places. Seeing the grille of an 18-wheeler fill a rear-view mirror in those spots is a scary experience. With accurate information now available about turnpike usage after the toll increase, the Parkways Authority can go about the business of improving the road to make it safer and more user-friendly.