One of the big unknowns, as the state Parkways Authority moves forward on preparations to sell up to $500 million of West Virginia Turnpike toll bonds for highways upgrades in 10 Southern West Virginia counties, is the extent of potential financial losses through the sale of super-discounted E-ZPasses mandated by law.
Championed by Gov. Jim Justice, the law authorizing a new round of Turnpike bond sales requires the Parkways Authority to offer E-ZPass transponders for passenger cars, allowing unlimited use of the Turnpike for no more than $25 a year.
Considering an unlimited-use E-ZPass currently goes for $285, steep demand for the super-discounted pass could end up costing the state millions.
However, Parkways Authority general manager Greg Barr told legislators Sunday that initial results of a frequency of use analysis provides some good news on that front.
The study, which tracked pings to cellphone towers along the Turnpike from cellphones in cars, found roughly 80 percent of vehicles tracked used the Turnpike only once or twice a year.
“That bodes well for the single flat-rate discount program,” he said. “You don’t have that many West Virginia commuters, not like New Jersey or New York.”
Also, as part of an ongoing traffic and revenue study that must be completed in preparation for taking the bonds to market, Barr said Turnpike travelers have participated in internet and written surveys regarding their Turnpike usage, with encouraging levels of participation.
“We’ve received far more responses than the experts thought they might get,” Barr said.
However, given the unique nature of the flat-rate discount, he said the authority plans to sell about $120 million of bonds in the spring, with the remainder of the bonds to go to market 18 months to two years later.
“By that time, we’ll have some measurable live history of the actual impact of the single-fee permit,” he said.
Barr said the initial bond sale will go to safety improvements on W.Va. Route 10, which runs from Cabell to Mercer counties; work on the Coalfields Expressway; and completion of the connector road to the so-called bridge to nowhere in Mercer County.
During interim meetings Sunday, legislators were updated on an ongoing review of the state’s vehicle fleet, after auditors concluded more than half the state’s vehicles subject to its review do not meet a recommended usage threshold of 1,100 miles per month.
In five agencies — Senior Services, Higher Education, Education and the Arts, Community and Technical Colleges, and Veterans’ Assistance — 75 percent or more vehicles are used below the mileage threshold, according to the legislative audit.
Of the 5,868 vehicles surveyed from January through June, out of Fleet Management’s total of 7,364 vehicles, 3,135 did not meet the minimum mileage, and 392 vehicles had no mileage.
Military Affairs and Public Safety had the most sparsely driven vehicles, at 183, and the department indicated most of those were waiting to be disposed of by state Surplus Property.