Governing is, at its most basic level, about picking priorities. Government cannot, nor should it, do everything and resources are not unlimited. Public policy debates are ultimately about how scarce resources are divided among competing and sometimes conflicting demands.
With that in mind, West Virginia is about to embark (hopefully) on what should be a spirited discussion about our roads. Every state motorist knows they are crumbling and the just-released report by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways quantifies those conditions, as well as the additional cost of improvements.
“More than one-third (36 percent) of West Virginia’s major roads are either in poor or mediocre condition… (with) rutting, cracks and potholes,” the report says. “Driving on rough roads costs West Virginia motorists a total of $400 million annually in extra vehicle operating costs.”
The report recommends a series of revenue-raising moves that would generate another $420 million a year, increasing the highway department’s annual spending by more than 30 percent. The additional money would come from increasing several taxes and fees associated with road use, highway department efficiencies and a bond issue financed with West Virginia Turnpike tolls.
The Republican response has been cautious. House Speaker Tim Armstead said on Metronews “Talkline” this week that he wants to find other savings in government spending and insure that the DOH is operating efficiently before considering higher taxes.
A thorough audit of the Division of Highways planned for this year should help find savings and improve operations, but it will not generate the amount of money necessary to make substantial improvements in the roads.
If Governor Tomblin and lawmakers are serious about fixing the roads they will have to make tough decisions about government providing fewer services in other areas or raising taxes and fees or a combination of the two.
That requires political will and the ability to generate public support for the chosen course. That won’t be easy. A Gallup Poll earlier this year found 63 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the amount of money they pay in taxes, while a Harper Poll last month said nearly two out of every three West Virginians believe the state’s on the wrong track.
Taken together, those numbers show what public policy makers will be up against when or if they ask taxpayers for more money to fix the roads.
Meanwhile, Congress cannot agree on a long-term solution for federal highway funding. Urban lawmakers want more money for mass transit while rural members want more money for roads and bridges, producing a standoff. The temporary legislative fixes leave major projects in limbo since contractors cannot depend on the money being there from one month to the next.
West Virginia cannot sit by and wait for Washington while our roads and bridges crumble beneath us, and Gov.Tomblin should take the lead on this.
The governor once said when presenting a budget plan that he has learned how important it is to be a good steward of the people’s money, “and how important it is to say yes when you can and being strong enough to say no when you can’t.”
That’s an accurate statement about the realities of governing, and a truism that’s going to be tested in the coming debate about our roads.