MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Frustrations are reaching boiling point in Morgantown and Kingwood.
Two County Commissioners from very different backgrounds essentially expressed the same feelings: when it comes to road maintenance, they’re running out of patience with inaction in Charleston.
“To do something, we have to get the individuals down in Charleston to understand that this is a critical stage,” Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom said.
The recently sworn-in Samantha Stone said the state of emergency Preston County Commissioners put in place over road concerns — well before her election — is about to turn a year old.
“Preston County never did lift its state of emergency that was implemented last April,” she said. “I do not understand why they are not up here seeing what has to happen.”
And while a slate of smaller bills circulate the Legislature and grind their way through committee, Preston County’s self-proclaimed emergency remains ever present. Stone — a substitute bus driver — has been taking local reporters with her for ride alongs so they can see the 81 miles she travels busing students in the mornings and afternoons.
“I was out on a road in Bruceton the other day and I went down off of the bus,” she explained. “And this is recorded: I stuck my leg — I’m 5’7” — I stuck my leg down to my hips in a hole that was in the road that we drive on.”
Through a small laugh, Stone told WAJR “it would be literally easier to tell you what roads in Preston County don’t need maintenance, rather than which ones do.”
Both Bloom and Stone felt the ongoing debate over the omnibus education bill had essentially sucked the oxygen out of the Capitol — pushing their concerns over roads further down the shopping list.
“It can go no farther,” a concurring Bloom told WAJR. “I am so frustrated right now. Our roads look like it has been attacked by the military.”
Some of the major arteries — like Rt. 705 in Monongalia County — are scheduled for significant maintenance in the coming years. But Bloom said they need a major commitment from the state, not promises, in an effort to deal with the numerous other road maintenance issues plaguing the region.
“The roads cannot stay this way,” he said. “The students on the buses, the people — we have gotten to a point that I am so frustrated and so concerned. And we don’t even get lip service anymore. We get nothing.”
Stone said she understands the importance of the big omnibus education bill, but said the debate has drained all the oxygen from every other issue in the state — putting the roads crisis in North Central West Virginia on a the back burner.
“The problems we face in Preston County are huge,” she said.
Right now, there are bills to increase pay for DOH workers, allow for contracting out for unfinished work, and the more comprehensive “Randy’s Dream” bill — which operates as a sort of shot-in-the-arm for core road maintenance by dumping $200 million and dedicated a funding stream to the problem.
On Friday, H.B. 2011 — which would allow for the DOH to contract out some work — was sent to the full house floor. H.B. 3044 is also heading to the full House of Delegates. Del. John Williams, D-Monongalia, sponsored the bill along with a significant bi-partisan presence from North Central West Virginia. That bill would update the funding formula the DOH is supposed to use for distributing road maintenance funds.
An audit released at the start of the regular legislative session revealed that virtually the entirety of DOH District 4 (Monongalia, Marion, Preston, Taylor, Doddridge, and Harrison counties) were failing to meet the threshold for core maintenance spending.
That’s one of several reasons Stone and Bloom agree: the local legislators have heard the cries of their constituents by responding to the issues laid out in the audit.
Bloom, a Democrat, constantly praises Del. Amy Summers, R-Taylor. Summers, the House Majority Leader, hails from part of the DOH district where much of the outcry has centered. Outside of Summers, Bloom was highly critical of Republican leadership in Charleston.
“There appears to be a real disconnect between the people who live down in Charleston,” he said. “And it is getting worse.”
Without real action, Bloom said he and Stone will need to come up with another way to grab the attention of legislators.
“I’m out there on those roads every day with 60 or more lives in my hands at my responsibility,” Stone said. “I don’t feel we’re getting the attention that we need. I do not feel that they have truly taken us seriously. I am telling you that when I say something needs to happen and somebody needs to get their butt up to District 4, it needs to happen now.”
Earlier this month, four Preston County High School students — the “Bruceton Boys” — were injured in a wreck during a heavy rainstorm. Brayden Bischoff passed away as a result of that accident.
“I’m not going to point fingers and say that’s the reason Brayden Bischoff passed away,” she said. “But I will tell you that, when I’m out on the highway, I know which I need to go to avoid the potholes and the standing water that we’ve been dealing with for a long, long time now.”
Stone continued: “I’m a veteran driver. I’m used to driving defensively around these things. We had a brand new driver driving down the road, standing water, just couldn’t get it under control.”
Gov. Jim Justice even referend Stone and the accident that claimed Bischoff’s life indirectly during his press conference following the House vote to table S.B. 451 — the omnibus education bill. At the time, Justice suggested that the Legislature needed to get to work on everything else — secondary roads among those priorities.
Much of the optimism that they both Stone and Bloom held following lengthy visits with legislators from around the state last month appears to have evaporated, according to Stone.
“We’re certainly good enough, my husband’s certainly good enough, all the taxpaying citizens in Preston, Mon, and Taylor and all these counties are certainly good enough to pay federal taxes and to pay state taxes,” she said. “Why can we not be good enough to see those funds used on our roads?”
Meanwhile, Bloom told WAJR that private citizens in Monongalia County have engaged in phone conversations with representatives from the Governor’s office and the Department of Transportation. Returned phone calls, according to Bloom, often include a representative placing blame at the feet of the local DOH and suggesting a change in management was needed.
An angry Bloom floated the possibility of closing the courthouses for a day as a form of symbolic protest, though he conceded that wasn’t a fully fleshed out idea.
Stone agreed that type of protest may not be the right choice — yet. Rather, she stayed on message — lamenting the dangers inherent in Preston County’s roads.
“This is not funny,” the bus driver turned county commissioner said. “This is in no way, shape, or form acceptable. This is sad. And I’m just over it.”
The Department of Transportation did not return a request for comment in time for publication of this story.