Long before there were railroads, and much longer before there were highways and airports, America's preferred form of travel was on its rivers. The Mighty Ohio and other rivers were America's first Interstate highways. Travel and trade plied the rivers and created America's first industrial cities.
When it comes to rivers, West Virginia is blessed among states. The Mountain State has some of the greatest mileage of navigable rivers in the country. The Ohio, Kanawha, Big Sandy, Little Kanawha and the Monongahela Rivers have influenced the lives of 1.2 million West Virginians over the years, living within the twenty-two river counties.
However, in spite of West Virginia's special distinction of great river mileage, our state has failed to capitalize on this precious resource. While other states have been making more of less, West Virginia has historically ignored its own vast potential.
Fortunately that era is coming to an end. All over the state river port districts have been formed to explore ways to develop ports, while the West Virginia Public Port Authority (WVPPA) was created over a decade ago to nurture and aid such groups.
Unfortunately the progress has been slow moving due to the lack of funds, a hindrance to so many projects in our beloved state. Port and riverfront development has been slowed because there has been no cash flow to match the commercial river flow.
For that reason the Port Authority has adopted the Non-Residential Watercraft Tax Bill as its sole legislative program. The Watercraft Bill HB2349 is a proposal to place a small tax on non-resident commercial watercraft, which plies the rivers of our state. This tax would in turn be used for riverfront development of facilities and ports in our state. This tax would provide a revenue stream that would fund the many proposed projects of our river communities. Most importantly these projects translate into that most treasured of assets: Jobs!
Great port projects have been planned all over the state, but have been put on hold due to lack of funding. These projects include river ports in South Charleston, Huntington, Parkersburg, Weirton, and Buffalo in Putnam County. The funds will also benefit the expansion of the existing port in Jackson County, near Ravenswood.
In addition, the revenues could also provide funding to inland ports, which are ports built in non-river communities such as Martinsburg, and a port is created for the combination of highways and railroads.
The tax could also benefit recreational facilities along the river, as well. Different waterfront enhancement projects are being considered in communities like Pt. Pleasant, Morgantown, Wheeling, Vienna and Kenova.
Of course, the proposal of a tax raises many understandable questions. Here are a few key points concerning issues many people have with the Watercraft Tax Bill:
The tax would not be placed on West Virginia watercraft as it is for non-residential craft only
The tax would be assessed based on time non-resident watercraft spends in West Virginia waters. All operating companies would be required to keep a time report
A grant program, to which port and river recreation communities would submit applications, will decide the distribution of the funds
All revenues from these taxes will be placed in the Riverfront Development Fund which will be used exclusively for the development of river or inland ports, waterfront recreational facilities and beautification projects
The Riverfront Development Fund precludes these tax revenues from being used in the development of the proposed regional airport or any projects other than port or river development.
This tax will not take away additional revenue from the counties. Moreover, out-of-state operators of watercraft may wish to register their equipment in West Virginia, which would help to generate additional revenues for the counties, municipalities and even the school systems.
This is not an unconstitutional tax. The Commonwealth of Kentucky has had a Watercraft Tax plan in place since 1954 which has withstood numerous legal challenges over time.
West Virginia sits on the leading edge of Inland Riverport Development and potential public Intermodal Ramps as well as wonderful opportunities to development and enhance our waterways.
By supporting the Watercraft Bill the legislature would support the creation of jobs and the development of the Mountain State's enviable mileage of rivers. It is time to end wasted opportunity and translate West Virginia's great water resources into jobs!