Governor Jim Justice, during his State of the State speech earlier this month, received one of his biggest rounds of applause when he made a pledge to shift some of the road bond money to smaller highway projects. “We’ve got to pull some of the money out of the bigger projects and move some of the money… to fix more of our secondary roads.”
Members of the House and Senate stood and applauded. They have been getting an earful from their constituents about the condition of the roads in our state.
Voters in 2017 passed overwhelmingly a constitutional amendment allowing the state to sell up to $1.6 billion in bonds for highway and bridge construction. The legislature approved an increase in the gas tax by 3.5 cents a gallon, a rise in the vehicle sales tax from five percent to six percent and an increase in the vehicle registration fee from $30 to $51.50 to pay off the bonds.
Additionally, Justice proposed, and the Legislature approved raising the state’s GARVEE bond limit from $200 million to $500 million to allow the state to draw down more highway money from the federal government. The West Virginia Turnpike approved a toll increase to finance up to $500 million in highway projects in the 10 counties that border the turnpike.
In all, the Governor’s Roads to Prosperity program is expected to generate nearly $3 billion for badly needed road construction. The first bonds have been sold and the road work is already well underway. However, the public dissatisfaction with the roads is palpable, and here’s why.
First, the state had fallen way behind on road construction and maintenance well before this new wave of construction. There is no way even $3 billion spread over several years can catch up with demand.
Second, for many people, roads are a parochial issue. The road you’re concerned about is the one in front of your house or the one you drive on to work or school. If your road isn’t being repaired, then what good was the bond issue to you?
Third, the state Department of Transportation has so far focused the bond money on major construction and improvement projects. This work is badly needed and provides long-term solutions, but it ignores secondary and tertiary roads. Some of these long-neglected roads have been reduced to pothole minefields.
That’s why Justice is now suggesting that some of the bond money—I’m hearing $100 million to $200 million—be diverted to maintenance and repaving projects. However, the Governor can expect some pushback on this from those who do not believe long-term debt should be used to finance short-term maintenance.
The Governor may have inadvertently thrown down the gauntlet on secondary roads in the State of the State. He only spent a few minutes on it, but his pledge to “shift the focus” of the bond money triggered significant interest among lawmakers. They now want to know more precisely what the Governor has in mind so they can tell their angry pothole-dodging constituents.
Looks as though we have #FTDR 2.0.