The Times West Virginian

Opinion

July 13, 2014

Long-range vision with transportation has been made to be thing of proud past

Last week’s closure of Fairmont’s Fourth Street Bridge is a symbol of a problem that must be fixed.

The United States should be proud of the vision its leaders once displayed to address the country’s transportation needs.

Back in 1954, for example, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced his goal of an interstate highway system — something that transformed the country.

Today, such long-range planning is virtually impossible.

On the federal level, at best, a short-term fix over highway funding is what’s in store this summer.

The shortfall in transit funding is estimated to be as high as $15 billion before the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund runs out of money. The fund is expected to go broke in August without congressional action.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is not optimistic about the possibility of a long-term solution.

“I worry that any solution that can pass this Congress will again be a short-term fix,” said the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman during a hearing of his panel last month.

That’s a situation that hurts the country.

“This will do very little to improve our infrastructure needs and support our economic future,” he continued.

How difficult is it to get things done with the roads? Let’s look at the Fourth Street Bridge situation as an example.

It has been apparent for decades that the bridge was in sorry shape.

The West Virginia Department of Transportation Divisions of Highways report issued before its closure noted that periodic inspections of the bridge were made in 1985, 1989 and 1998, with 18 additional inspections made between 1993 and 2014. Four in-depth inspections were made starting in 1994.

The city first started working toward replacing the bridge around 2005, looking more seriously in 2008. The goal is to align a new bridge with Third Street, and it has been a long process. The replacement is scheduled for 2015.

“The design has been approved by the state and federal highways, and that gives a relocation from Fourth Street to Third Street, and gives us that continuous link we had advocated for from the Gateway Connector across the bridge, to then take us to Locust Avenue, particularly to help Fairmont State University and Fairmont General Hospital,” Fairmont City Manager Jay Rogers said.

The process has involved the coordination of a variety of local, state and federal agencies to deal with environmental and historical issues.

Rogers, who hopes the Fourth Street Bridge is demolished as soon as possible, said that some progress in the replacement project should be made in the coming weeks.

“We’ll be working through the Department of Highways at the federal level to get approval for property acquisitions, and then we can begin that project. We’ll be working the next couple of weeks with the local Department of Highways and the state,” Roger said. “We’ll continue to keep the council and the public updated.”

Meanwhile, road problems continue to pile up. West Virginia is tied with Rhode Island for the second-worst roads in the nation, according to a report released by TRIP, a nonprofit organization that studies the nation’s highways.

“In 2012, 33 percent of West Virginia’s major rural roads were rated in poor condition, the third-highest rate nationally,” the report said. “In 2013, 13 percent of West Virginia’s rural bridges were rated as structurally deficient, the 19th-highest rate nationally.”

If there is no legislation with the federal Highway Trust Fund, the state could lose more than $470 million in federal funds slated for West Virginia’s 203 current highway projects.

Secretary of Transportation Paul Mattox said last week he is optimistic Congress will act. If not, Mattox said contractors could take a reduced payment from the state or stop work altogether until the issue is resolved at the federal level.

That’s no way to run a country. Our leaders of not that many decades ago would be embarrassed.

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