STAR CITY, W.Va. — More than 200 people attended a public forum in the Morgantown area to get questions answered on the upcoming Roads to Prosperity Constitutional Amendment election — a meeting that lasted well beyond it’s allotted two hours at the Knights of Columbus in Star City.
“Totally frustrated,” Monongalia County resident Elizabeth Beall said. “Not unexpectedly though. They did the same run-around that I totally expected to hear.”
‘They’ would refer to the gaggle of experts — Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Smith, Morgantown Monongalia Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Executive Director Bill Austin, Division of Highways District Engineer Don Williams, and Delegate Cindy Frich (R – Monongalia, 51).
“I’m definitely a little bit more uneasy in terms of the vote from what I can expect,” Morgantown resident Drew Gatlin said. “I kind of thought it would be a relatively shoo-in with the bonding, but right now I think it’s a little bit of an uncertainty.”
It was Frich, who raised concerns about one of the listed projects the road bond referendum is expected to fund, that spearheaded the forum. Though she has refused to offer a public endorsement of the road bond referendum, she has criticized local planning agencies like the MPO for the $100 million dollar project to give better access to I-79 in the northern portion of the county. Frich even went so far as to claim homes could be taken and property devalued. Her claims have drawn public criticism from numerous elected officials in Monongalia County, but the turnout seemed to suggest a lot of unease about voting ‘yes’ to the road bond.
“I’m pretty sure it’s pretty obvious, but I prefer not to state it clearly,” Beall said before leaving Tuesday night’s meeting.
Though concern over the individual project that might impact residents of Bakers Ridge area did come up, the meeting often devolved into debates over the need for maintenance of roads that already are in disrepair. Gatlin said he won’t make his decision based on any individual project — saying that he understands that the early projections for road construction are a package deal, but also still need further public in put.
“The public should probably remember that they would do best to show up at additional public hearings and input meetings in order to get that type of input that they claim that they want to have,” Gatlin said.
Though Gatlin didn’t definitively say how he was leaning following the meeting, he did say that Delegate Frich’s public forum had exposed a number of concerns.
“I definitely am not extremely convinced that bonding is a great idea unrestricted, but it’s hard not to see that doing something like this can give our state the flexibility that needs — particularly in these issues of highway expansion and maintenance,” Gatlin said.
Beall is not convinced that the projection of 7,000 fewer cars on already congested Monongalia County roads is accurate.
“In the meantime, in the last twelve or thirteen years, Suncrest Town Centre, all the student housing off Van Voorhis has all been developed,” she said. “That’s people who are coming there. They are not getting from 68 to 79.”
Chamber of Commerce VP of Governmental Affairs Eldon Callen projected a successfully passed road bond would reduce the life cycle of pothole repair from seven years to four years, but Beall said she didn’t see how that was possible once the bond money eventually runs out. This was a popular opinion, often punctuated with loud cheers.
The speakers offered a spirited defense of the state’s current road issues — and of the road bond itself. On the same day the Governor held a mid-afternoon Q & A at the Erickson Alumni Center in Morgantown, they attempted to explain the benefits of the road bond — that the low bonding rates made this a sensible investment for taxpayers, that the new pool of money would allow the DOT to move their resources elsewhere, and that perhaps staffing levels and competitive pay were needs that they could more readily attack. Smith often reminded the attendees that Bill Austin and Don Williams were “their neighbors” and that “he was not a villain.”
Did the pitch work, though? The more than two and a half hour meeting still ended with plenty of unease — whether you supported the road bond or not.
“The roads just keep deteriorating, and they’re going to add more roads that keep deteriorating,” Beall said.
Beall seemed unconvinced. Gatlin expressed uncertainty. Even as early voting continues and election day draws closer, there are still two more public forums scheduled in Morgantown this week — a chance for either side to try and drive up turnout just a bit further.
The Chamber of Commerce will hold a meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday in Morgantown. The Monongalia County Republican Executive Committee will hold their meeting at 7 p.m. at South Middle School.