Highway fund gets boost from Byrd

Winter’s icy grip has temporarily halted work on finishing the entrance and exit ramps for the new Gateway Connector bridge over Interstate 79. Work has also slowed on adding new merging lanes to the interstate, but that part of the project will pick up, too, when the weather breaks. News that U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd has won more federal highway funding than expected this year may also permit more construction later this year on the new road.

West Virginia will get about $404 million in federal highway construction funds this fiscal year — more than it got last year — because of a commitment U.S. Robert C. Byrd won from fellow senators and House leaders in lengthy talks over a massive bill to fund the federal government through Sept. 30.

“Now that the funding is set, it is up to the West Virginia Department of Transportation to put these federal dollars to work,” Byrd said.

His announcement may crack open a window for progress this year on Fairmont’s Gateway Connector highway, depending on how state highway officials decide to match the federal construction dollars.

State highway officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

But a spokeswoman for Gov. Joe Manchin said the state is determined to match federal funding obtained by Byrd.

Last August, Paul Mattox, state Transportation Secretary and Highways Commissioner, said the state has $24.6 million to buy homes and businesses on the East Side in the path of the new road.

But the state is depending upon federal funds for an estimated $35.4 million in remaining construction costs, Mattox said.

State Highway Engineer Marvin Murphy also said then it would take about three to four more years to finish the road through the East Side to the restored Robert H. Mollohan Jefferson Street Bridge (the High Level Bridge).

Federal funding for the Gateway project is running at 80 percent of the total cost of various contracts, leaving the state to provide the remaining 20 percent.

The new multi-lane 1 1/2-mile link between downtown Fairmont and Interstate 79 has been funded over the years with earmarks obtained by Rep. Alan B. Mollohan.

Earmarks are congressionally mandated projects that are not part of a presidential budget.

Many earmarks are slipped into spending bills anonymously, and some have gained notoriety as simple “pork barrel” measures.

When Democrats regained control of both chambers in last November’s elections, party leaders decided to tackle growing criticism of the practice. The fix will probably call for more transparency and accountability in the process.

Meanwhile, because Republicans failed to finish work on many of the 13 pending appropriations bills before losing control, the Democrats chose a continuing resolution to keep the federal government running for the rest of the fiscal year.

Several departments, like Homeland Security and the FBI, and the nation’s intelligence and military branches were exempted from attempts to hold spending at the 2006 appropriation level.

The House is expected to vote on the mammoth spending bill today.

Byrd, once again chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., his counterpart in the House, said in mid-December said they would strip the continuing resolution of most of its earmarks.

Mollohan said at the time that the Gateway Connector would only be delayed, not canceled.

The move to seek agreement later this year on a new earmarking process “was unfortunate but a necessary step,” he said in a Dec. 21 statement.

In his Tuesday statement, Byrd said he fought to keep the state’s share at the higher amount envisioned when Congress passed a five-year authorization bill for road and highway building projects in 2005.

Rumors that the continuing resolution would see highway spending set at the 2006 appropriation level would have meant a cut in the state’s share, something which Byrd acknowledged in a statement issued by his office.

“However, those concerns were based on speculation,” he said.

E-mail Bill Byrd at bbyrd@timeswv.com.

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