MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice has directed a team of of DOH officials, including Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Smith, to form a rapid response team to address concerns over road conditions in Preston County, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are concerned by the narrow focus of the team.
“There’s a lot of help that’s needed in many counties within (DOH) District 4, in which Preston County also rests,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said. “There are other districts throughout the state that need the help. The concern is that there was a road bond passed that people expected to address the roads in our state, and I don’t think very many people are feeling like the Governor and his administration are doing a good job to maintain the secondary roads that they expected to have happen following the road bond.”
Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, who proposed the “Randy’s Dream” bill to allocate additional dollars towards road maintenance, agreed that the problem is statewide.
“Whether (Gov. Justice) believes it or not, this is a statewide problem,” Smith said. “We’ve got 54 other counties that are having — maybe not all 54 — but I know there are two other counties in District 4, Mon County for one, where the roads are horrific.”
The Preston County Commission declared a state of emergency last April over road conditions. It has never been lifted.
Meanwhile, the “Randy’s Dream” roads bill has been laid over until Wednesday so the State Senate can continue debating concerns over the price of the bill and the local control it would give to county commissioners in working to identify problem roads. The third reading of the bill will now coincide with the all-important crossover day, the final opportunity to get legislation out of one chamber and into the other.
“I would think giving local government some skin in the game would help, but there’s some — a few Democrats — that’s come to me and told me that they have a problem with that because their county commissioners don’t want that responsibility,” Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, said. “Maybe that’s something we’ll have to work out, but I don’t know.”
The bill, proposed by Smith, would allocate $200 million in Rainy Day Fund dollars and send portions of a severance tax to more adequately fund secondary road maintenance in West Virginia.
Almost simultaneously, the House of Delegates then passed bi-partisan H.B. 3044. The bid to overhaul the DOH funding formula passed 97-2.
“The bill is designed to hold the DOH accountable for knowing what their plans are ahead of time, the basis for their plans, and essentially establishing a list of priorities and the basis for those priorities as to how and when certain secondary roads are going to be repaired and maintained,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said Tuesday.
Miley said the bill focuses more on road mileage and traffic volume in establishing a new formula.
This all follows anger expressed last week by two county commissioners from counties in DOH District 4, frustrated over the slow pace in which the legislature was moving to address road woes. One of them, Preston County Commissioner Samantha Stone, is also a school bus driver and told MetroNews road maintenance failures may have played a role in a fatal wreck in Preston County earlier this month.
In an e-mail exchange with MetroNews affiliate WAJR in Morgantown, Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom expressed cautious optimism, but agreed that Preston County can’t be the only one to benefit from increased attention.
“I am encouraged that the Governor has sent Tom Smith to the North Central Counties to look at our serious road problems. Passage of a new formula to allocate road funds along with additional funding is a good start. I am pleased for Preston County, but there are five other counties in our District and we still have a lot to accomplish. We still need to increase funding for our District, increase manpower and begin contracting the services so our core maintenance program is properly managed. We need a 3 year plan to bring our roads back, so we may recover from the loss of basic maintenance that was not performed on our roads.”
An audit released at the beginning of the legislative session in January revealed that essentially every county in DOH District 4 (Monongalia, Preston, Marion, Taylor, Harrison, and Doddridge) was failing to spend up to the threshold in core maintenance projects. The audit further revealed a list of reasons for the failure — primarily citing an inability to retain skilled employees due to private sector competition. A bill to address still has legs in the House.
So, needless to say, Tuesday was a busy day for the #FTDR crowd (“Fix The Damn Roads!”) as they watched bills and proclamations emerge, but not one that is guaranteed to allay their very loud concerns. For them, this session was supposed to be about the roads. Local leaders from the counties that make up DOH District 4 had everyone’s attention when the session started last month, but were quickly drowned out by the rise of the now-dead omnibus education bill and the ensuing teacher’s strike that follwed.
Smith acknowledged that Preston County is the worst in his senatorial district, but said the Governor should be aware that the problem isn’t unique to the eastern border county.
“It’s just not a Preston County problem,” he said.
Meanwhile, Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Smith spoke on MetroNews “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval Tuesday morning, explaining whey he’s on the ground in Preston County.
“We’ll try to amp up what we need to do out here, based on what we see,” Smith told MetroNews.
He added: “The highway department, I think, does everything it can to make the money go as far as it can. But the dollars we’ve had have not been sufficient to take of everything we needed to take care of.”
Tom Smith had already met with officials through part of the morning before beginning a roads tour. One of the items they discussed ties directly back into the aforementioned DOH audit: an inability to maintain a fully staffed work force.
Officials, Smith said, relay word that Preston County consistently is around 25 percent under its full staffing for road maintenance.
“If you can’t keep your labor force to do maintenance, then you have a hard time getting all your maintenance done,” Smith said.
Smith added later Tuesday via statement:
“Governor Justice has asked me to pull together our DOH team to visit Preston County, travel and evaluate the roads throughout the county and meet with officials to address concerns regarding road conditions. Our team of myself, State Highway Engineer Aaron Gillispie, Deputy Highway Engineer Greg Bailey, Chief Transportation Engineer Jimmy Wriston, District 4 Engineer Darby Clayton, Maintenance Engineer Michael Cronin and others will be spending the next 2 days doing just that. We will then report back to Governor Justice, share our observations regarding a comprehensive, prioritized plan to make sure that we continue to respond to the transportation needs of, not only Preston County, but every county in West Virginia.”