There is no dispute that improving West Virginia’s roads is one of the state’s biggest needs.
We use them daily — out of necessity and for pleasure.
They’re also vital to West Virginia’s economic health.
During a joint legislative hearing on infrastructure last month in Charleston, Jan Vineyard spoke on behalf of the West Virginia Truckers Association and West Virginia Business and Industry Council, which represents about 60 companies and organizations.
“The importance of good roads cannot be minimized for the commercial and industrial development for West Virginia,” she said, noting that the state has made strides in reducing taxes in recent years and has seen its economy grow faster than most other states. She talked about West Virginia’s potential in developing business, particularly in the oil and gas sector.
“Unless we have the infrastructure and the highways, we cannot keep that up and fulfill that potential,” she said. “Good roads are a must.”
West Virginia Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox floated the idea of asking state voters to consider authorizing a $1 billion to $1.5 billion, 30-year road bond that could finish 17 different projects statewide.
“If the voters of West Virginia would approve a $1 billion road bond amendment, we have identified 17 projects throughout the state of West Virginia that we would move forward and have under construction in the next four years,” Mattox said.
On an even more ambitious note, he said that “if the voters would give us $1.5 billion, then we could say over the next eight years we could complete Corridor H in West Virginia with that funding.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, though, said he has no plans to propose a road bond issue this year. Such an issue has no chance without strong gubernatorial support. Resolutions to put such an amendment on the ballot would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.
Make no mistake; a road bond would mean a significant, long-term financial commitment. Mattox said officials estimate it would take $65 million to $75 million in state revenues each year to pay off the $1 billion bond over 30 years. Those numbers, of course, would increase with the $1.5 billion plan that would allow for completion of Corridor H.
In 2011, lawmakers passed a bill that would have raised $40 million annually by increasing fees charged motorists by the Division of Motor Vehicles. Tomblin vetoed that plan. Even with that funding in place and dedicated to a road bond, it would fall far short of what is needed.
With a road bond off the table, West Virginia badly needs to develop an alternative plan.
Don’t look for significant federal help. The last multi-year federal transportation plan expired in September 2009 and has been temporarily extended eight times. The current authorization expires March 31.
According to The Washington Post, under a five-year, $260 billion transportation spending plan being debated by the House Transportation Committee in Washington, West Virginia is one of five states — with Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Wisconsin — receiving no increase.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, told the Charleston Daily Mail last month that “we need some real political muscle here to be able to say to the people of West Virginia we need to own the problem. We can’t skirt the reality; we have to make some tough decisions.”
Put sound ideas for funding solutions on the table.
U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican of West Virginia’s 2nd District and senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that “the reality is that the Highway Trust Fund is going broke at a time when we have tremendous opportunity to put people to work on transportation projects. I am pleased that leaders in the House have endorsed my plan to use royalties from expanded American energy production to help fund infrastructure investment. Instead of increasing the gas tax or fees, let's take the money generated from expanded energy exploration — which will also create thousands of jobs — and invest it in an area where we know we’ll get the biggest bang for our buck.”
West Virginia has 36,000 miles of roads and 6,600 bridges and spends $700 million annually to maintain them. Its needs moving into the future are on top of that. They are not going to go away and will only become more expensive to address in the future.