The Times West Virginian

Local News

February 2, 2014

State roads, bridges increasingly deteriorated, crowded — at high cost

FAIRMONT — West Virginia’s roads and bridges are increasingly deteriorated and crowded, according to a new report by TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based national transportation research organization.

The TRIP report was released in January. The report states that one-third of all major locally and state-maintained roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and one-third of West Virginia’s bridges show significant deterioration or do not meet current design standards.

According to the report, West Virginia motorists lose a great deal of money on additional vehicle operating costs due to rough roads. West Virginia motorists spend more money on repairs, have increased fuel consumption and tire wear, and have accelerated vehicle depreciation due to the roads.

They found that driving on bad roads costs each West Virginia motorist an average of $333 in extra operating costs each year. Statewide, it costs motorists $400 million.

The report also stated that the overall traffic fatality rate in West Virginia is the second-highest in the United States. The 2011 traffic fatality rate on non-interstate rural roads in West Virginia is more than double the rate on all other roads and highways in West Virginia.

The report recommends increased investment in transportation infrastructure, for safety and for economic reasons.

State Sen. Bob Beach, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that the report contains a lot of important information.

“The report has a lot of information that we as legislators have been hearing in a piecemeal fashion, all compiled into one document,” Beach said. “There’s a lot of eye-opening information, and very alarming information.”

Beach said that one fact that stuck out was West Virginia’s ranking in traffic fatalities.

“We rank number two in fatalities, and one-third of those can be directly related to the poor conditions of our highways, not just with potholes, but with improper width of our lanes and poor lighting,” Beach said.

Beach said that a report out of Texas shows promising results, showing that expanding the width of roads, adding rumble strips and adding median strips work to improve safety.

“But ultimately it comes down to the dollar,” Beach said.

Additional transportation work requires additional money, and Beach said that the funding for transportation infrastructure has remained relatively stagnant.

Randy Harris, District 4 bridge engineer for the West Virginia Department of Transportation’s Division of Highways, said that his budget hasn’t changed much over the years.

“I don’t think any state is actually funding enough to improve their overall infrastructure, but just to keep motorists safe, we can do that,” Harris said. “There will always be needs we would like to address that we don’t get to.”

District 4 covers six counties, including Marion County.

Harris said that bridges in the county are inspected every 24 months, according to the federal highway requirements.

“In this district, there are over 1,000 bridges,” Harris said.

While the TRIP study found that many bridges are in need of improvements, because they are inspected regularly, the bridges are safe to drive on, provided motorists follow the posted load restrictions.

The state budget is known in advance, so the department makes repairs based on a priority list, according to need and funding.

For bridges, one big problem is manpower.

“For over 1,000 bridges, I have 12 people to work to repair them,” Harris said.

Manpower is a problem in general for transportation infrastructure maintenance.

“We’ve been losing employees to the oil and gas industry,” Jeffrey Pifer, District 4 maintenance engineer, said. Employees have left for better pay and big signing bonuses.

”We’re pretty much running below where we need to be, and that presents a problem of just having enough people to go out and run the equipment,” Pifer said.

Maintenance in District 4 has about 15 percent fewer employees than it needs, Pifer said.

Beach said that the problem is “keeping drivers in seats.”

“We have all the equipment we could use, but we don’t have the drivers,” Beach said.

This winter has been particularly rough on the roads.

“There are obviously going to be roads that are going to need a lot of work,” Pifer said. “We’re going to see some pretty nice potholes after this winter, and with the temperatures going up and down, it makes it worse. It’s just a vicious cycle.”

Pifer said that he divides up the yearly budget to see how much they can spend each day to stay on-budget. Then, from July 1 to Nov. 15, they cut down on the amount they try to spend, to save that budget money for the more-expensive winter months, and pay for snow removal and ice control.

This year, District 4 started out with an extra $2 million saved from earlier in the year. Now, they’re down to $10,500.

“It’s been a pretty expensive winter,” Pifer said.

Pifer said that funding is certainly a concern.

“We realize the roads are in bad shape, but if you don’t have it to spend, you can’t spend it,” Pifer said.

Beach agreed that more funding was key.

“We’re definitely underfunded, and it’s becoming a liability. It’s going to cost taxpayers on vehicles, and fatalities,” Beach said.

He said there were several different ideas for helping to increase the transportation budget.

One was to pass a home rule bill, to allow county commissions to collaborate with the Division of Highways to develop their own local plan.

Another was to look at what other states are doing to increase their budgets, and find a solution that the taxpayers in West Virginia would approve of, Beach said.

“These are things we need to seriously explore,” Beach said. “Doing it piecemeal isn’t going to get us where we need to be.”

North Central West Virginia has seen a lot of economic growth over the years.

“We expect that growth to continue for another 30 years, easily, and that means more people on the highways, and more need for better infrastructure,” Beach said.

The West Virginia Blue Ribbon on Highways Commission, established in 2012 by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, was formed to study the transportation needs of West Virginia. Beach is on the commission, which states it has a “three-legged stool” approach, seeking to: identify and generate sufficient revenue, find cost-savings and efficiencies, and develop innovative ideas.

The commission held events all over the state and is set to give its final presentation with recommendations to the legislature by late February, Beach said. Many of those suggestions will include ideas for increasing funding. One of those suggestions may be increasing the fee for obtaining a driver’s license, based on other states’ rates.

In Marion County, after a winter of snow and cold, there is plenty of road work to be done. This includes $2.5 million in state-funded paving projects, $425,000 to correct sliding, and over $1.3 million for work on bridges, as well as $6 million in federal funding for the Fourth Street Bridge, and $3,331,000 in funding to widen and resurface Locust Avenue.

Email Colleen S. Good at cgood@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @CSGoodTWV.

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