Spring officially arrives today, but winter leaves behind a reminder—pothole filled roads. The pockmarked highways are so bad that not even the Division of Transportation tries to put up a positive spin.
“It’s the worst we’ve seen it in decades,” DOT spokesman Brent Walker told me on Metronews Talkline Wednesday. “It’s unbelievable.”
Oh, you can believe it. In fact, you can’t drive to work, school, the grocery store or just down the street without traversing a minefield of jagged holes and broken pavement.
“We recognize how bad it is,” Walker says.
DOT Secretary Paul Mattox has ordered maintenance crews to mount an offensive against the potholes, and he’s increased the spring patching budget from $18 million to $30 million. But this is not an easy fix.
Many of the plants that make hot asphalt, which provides a more lasting fix, aren’t operating yet, so crews are using the “throw-and-go” method with cold patch. Walker says that’s only a temporary solution. “No sooner do you have that down than the vehicle tires bring it back up.”
The plethora of potholes is an indication of a more serious infrastructure issue; the state’s roads are crumbling underneath our cars and trucks. Gas tax collections—the primary source of road funds—have leveled off because of fuel efficiency, while road building costs have risen.
West Virginians already pay 54 cents a gallon in federal and state taxes (36 cents state, 18 cents federal). That’s about a nickel higher than the national average. It would be hard to convince West Virginians to pay more at the pump.
The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways has produced a series of recommendations, but nobody—including the Governor—paid much attention to them during the last legislative session. The commission’s proposals include:
–Raising DMV fees ($77 million).
–Dedicating consumer sales tax collected on repairs and auto parts ($25 million).
–Keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike to finance a state road bond issue of between $600 million and $1 billion.
–Finding efficiencies in highways and dedicating those savings to road construction.
The commission also suggested the state look at alternative ways of funding road work, such as following Virginia’s lead. Last year, the Commonwealth decided to eliminate the 17.6 cents-per-gallon retail tax, replacing it with a 3.5 percent sales tax on gas at the wholesale level and imposing a slight increase in the state sales tax, with the additional revenue going to roads.
The state could also consider treating road construction and repairs like school construction: empower counties to pass their own bond issues, and then match that amount with state funds.
West Virginia is responsible for 36,000 miles of roads and over 6,900 bridges to maintain. It’s a mammoth job for a state with a small tax base. Until public officials are willing to make the tough decisions about how to pay for the needed road work and motorists are willing accept those decisions, every spring we will see potholes as plentiful as dandelions.