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                   Tuesday, July 21, 2009 - 3:15AM

Thoughts and bypasses: the WV Turnpike toll increase

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WV Turnpike near Mossy

In a couple of weeks (on August 1), the tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike will go from $1.25 per car per plaza to $2.00 per car per plaza. There are three main plazas on the route, so the current price to travel the entire length one-way is $3.75 per car. After the increase, that will rise to $6 (for the sake of brevity I won't describe in detail the North Beckley plaza at the Route 19 exit, which currently is 25 cents). While I'm not a frequent user of the turnpike by any means (as in not a daily or weekly commuter), I do drive it many times per year for storms and weather (particularly in the winter to cover snow in the higher elevations around Beckley, Flat Top, Sandstone Mountain and Lewisburg).

My opinion? I have no problem at all with the increase - someone has to pay for the upkeep of the road. If it isn't tolls, it would be with taxes - so I guess we have to take our pick. It seems more fitting that those who are actually using the road pay their share for it. Notwithstanding, getting an EZ Pass transponder will all but eliminate the increase for those who choose that route. If you get the transponder, your toll only increases 5 cents per plaza to $1.30. That's a no-brainer for just about anyone who uses the road more than a couple times a year. I just got mine this week.

WV Turnpike near Mahan

The Bypasses

Thanks to some news articles this week, apparently the cat is now out of the bag about the Turnpike's 'bypasses', for those who don't already know about them. Since exploring country roads is a pasttime of mine, I've known about these for years - so I thought it was amusing that they're now getting mentioned in the media.

The WV turnpike differs from most others in that there are no toll booths at any of the the entrance or exit ramps (at Route 19 being the lone exception). This means that each plaza can be bypassed (with varying degrees of inconvenience) by exiting the highway and using back roads. Turnpikes in most other states (like Oklahoma and Kansas) have mini-plazas at every entrance and exit, which prevent cars from bypassing the tolls like you can here in West Virginia.

There are three such 'bypasses' on the WV Turnpike that I have used occasionally if either I'm not in a hurry, or don't have any cash in the car for tolls. The first two, what I call the 'Paint Creek bypass' and the 'Cabin Creek bypass', are ones I've used more often, since they do not add much travel time and mileage to the trip. The third, the 'Ghent bypass', is much longer and is usually not worth the trouble to save the $1.25 or even the upcoming $2.00.

EZ-Pass transponder

Now that I have a transponder, I doubt that I'll ever use the bypasses again. Not to mention that they may end up getting congested after the toll increase, now that everyone who didn't realize they were there does now. All it takes is one slow car or truck on those long back roads (there are no decent passing zones) to tip the time/convenience balance in favor of just staying on the highway and paying the toll. The main reason I would use them before was that I rarely have cash on me, and the hassle of going to an ATM just for toll money is worse than the inconvenience of the added miles and minutes of the back roads. With that said, here are my own thoughts on the three WV Turnpike bypasses (listed in southbound order).

The Cabin Creek bypass

This is simply exiting at Chelyan and taking Cabin Creek Road to the Sharon exit, bypassing the first (northernmost) toll plaza. Since Cabin Creek Road parallels the turnpike, this bypass is the shortest of the three - it only adds about 5 minutes of travel time to the trip compared to staying on the highway and going through the toll plaza. The exception, of course, is if you end up behind a slow car or truck for the entire route (there are no good passing zones). Coal trucks use part of this route, though I have seen less of them in recent years. There are three traffic lights on this route (all in Chelyan) that can also slow your progress and add to the total transit time.

Click here for a Google Maps image showing the Cabin Creek Bypass.

The Paint Creek bypass
This bypass is also simple - exit at Mossy, make two right turns onto Paint Creek Road and re-enter at Pax. While Paint Creek Road also loosely parallels the Turnpike and has no traffic lights, it is a narrow, curvy road with a very slow speed limit. As with most WV roads, don't try to speed - the limits are enforced more by the laws of physics - no cops necessary here! The road is only paved wide enough for one vehicle (no dividing line), which means oncoming cars both must slow and pull halfway onto the loose gravel shoulders to pass. The constant threat of oncoming cars around the sharp, blind curves makes Paint Creek Road somewhat hairy to negotiate. Nighttime is actually easier, when you can see headlights shining around the curves to alert the presence of an oncoming car. The Paint Creek bypass adds at least 10-12 minutes to your travel time, compared to staying on the highway and going through the Pax toll plaza. This makes it a less-than-ideal option, unless you really have a lot of time to burn or simply don't have any cash for the toll plaza.

Click here for a Google Maps image showing the Paint Creek Bypass.

The Ghent bypass
This is the longest, the most circuitous and the most time-consuming bypass of the three. Consequently, it is the least practical and I never use it unless I'm completely out of cash for tolls. The Ghent bypass requires taking I-64 (at the Beckley split), exiting at either Eisenhower Drive or Airport Road (I prefer the latter) and taking Route 19 all the way to Ghent. This route is simply too long and inconvenient to be a 'true' bypass, IE, always worth the toll to avoid it, in my opinion. Route 19 is two-lane all the way, and takes you through many communities (Beaver, Shady Spring, Daniels, etc) with slow speed limits, frequent traffic congestion and several signals. The rough total distance of this bypass is on the order of 17 miles and adds 20 minutes or more to the total transit time compared to staying on the highway. For me, I'm typically only using the Ghent leg of the Turnpike if I'm on a trip to Raleigh - in which case I almost always have 'travel cash' with me to pay the tolls.

Click here for a Google Maps image showing the Ghent Bypass.

WV Turnpike near Standard

So, there you have it. It's definitely nice that the Turnpike Authority added the new discount plan to EZ-Pass. The older one (flat rate of $25 per plaza per quarter or $95 annually per plaza - that's $75 per quarter for all three) was only worth it if you drove the Turnpike more than 7 times every 3 months - I never averaged even close to that, so the numbers didn't work for me. The new plan of 5 cents more than the original (pre-increase) tolls makes it an easy decision. No more digging in my center console for change on the way back from Beckley after a long night of snowstorm coverage, and no bypasses or ATM trips on those late nights when I don't have cash on me.

More thoughts

While I'm on the subject, I've always wondered why the two northernmost toll plazas were placed where they are (IE, in locations you can easily get around). If the Cabin Creek toll plaza was moved south to just beyond the Sharon exit (between the Sharon and Paint Creek interchanges), there would be no way to bypass it. Similarly, if the Pax plaza was moved to just north of Mossy or just south of Mahan (between the Mahan and Mossy interchanges), it would make the bypass much more difficult. There is a 'back' road between Mossy and Mahan, but it is very narrow, treacherous and even turns to dirt and gravel with hairpin tuns in spots - not one I would want to take on a regular basis. The terrain and curvature of the highway would make options for plazas in those locations limited and possibly dangerous, but I think they'd be no more problematic than where they currently are (as it is, the Cabin Creek Plaza is in the middle of a sharp curve).

I've also wondered why the Turnpike doesn't go the route of a Kansas/Oklahoma-style toll system, with just one main plaza on the highway and small booths at each entrance/exit. The way these work (at least in the Plains states) is that you pay the full toll at the main plaza, then you get a refund if you exit early. If you're coming the other direction and enter the highway early, you get a ticket at the mini-plaza that allows you to pay a reduced rate once you get to the main plaza. I could see this being problematic only in the Beckley area (where local residents would be unfairly tolled), but this would eliminate the bypass options at the two northernmost plazas. If one of the two northern Plazas was eliminated, they could move the personnel to small interchange booths at Sharon, Paint Creek, Mahan, Mossy and Pax - making it impossible to use any part of the Turnpike without going through a toll booth. Come to think of it, you wouldn't really need booths at Mahan or Paint Creek since there is no practical way to use those exits to bypass anything.

Weused to have toll booths at just about everyentranceand exit years ago!
- Posted by Tom from Charleston

Thanks bunches for the information. This is the first time i have heard about the increase...and I travel through there at least once a month...
- Posted by debbie from nc

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