The Justice administration continues to work behind the scenes to try to formulate a plan for additional repairs and maintenance for the state’s secondary roads. As the Governor is apparently learning, it’s not a simple matter.
The Governor said in the State of the State address earlier this month that he wanted to redirect some of the $1.6 billion in road bond money from big highway projects to routine maintenance. But before he starts moving money around he should be asking questions about how maintenance money is spent now.
The West Virginia Legislative Auditor released a report recently on two of the ten highway districts in the state showing they consistently underspent on core maintenance, which is defined as snow removal and ice control, ditching, pothole repair and mowing.
The districts are supposed to spend 70 percent of their annual maintenance budget on this work. The remaining 30 percent is designated for what the audit identifies as “other maintenance activities and responses to citizen’s request for assistance.”
However, the audit of District 4 (Doddridge, Harrison, Marion, Monongalia, Preston, Taylor) and District 5 (Berkeley, Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Jefferson, Mineral, Morgan) found that “a majority of the counties of interest, 11 out of 13 counties, spent considerably less than the required 70 percent of their Annual Plan budget on core activities over the course of the study (2009-2017).”*
None of the 11 counties hit the threshold once and frequently core maintenance was well below the target. For example, Monongalia County spent just 52 percent of its budget on core work over the nine year period.
The audit does not include the other eight districts, but if they are like Four and Five the state may have fallen short for years on core maintenance spending.
The report says Highways has several possible explanations for the under-spending. Events such as floods can divert workers and equipment away from routine maintenance to focus on cleanup and recovery. Another is the labor shortage; highways has major problems filling vacancies. For example, the report said, “Monongalia County in District Four lacked half of the labor quota required to upkeep the system.”
West Virginia has failed to keep up with the necessary road maintenance for years. A Blue Ribbon report in 2015 estimated it would cost an additional $750 million annually to “improve the highway system from where it stands today.”
The road bond, the draw down of additional federal dollars and the increased tolls on the turnpike are generating close to $3 billion for major road construction. However, that’s not addressing the crumbling secondary roads that need routine maintenance.
Part of the answer may be to dedicate some of the bond money to routine work but, as the audit shows, West Virginia has a structural issue within the highway district offices that affects how core maintenance money is spent.
*(The report’s review of the 13 counties in the two districts over the nine year period found that Hampshire County met the 70 percent threshold twice (2015, 2016) and Mineral County met it once (2016).