The tension between the Justice administration and Secretary of Transportation/Commissioner of Highways Tom Smith had been building for weeks.
Governor Jim Justice was under increasing pressure from citizens and lawmakers to repair the state’s crumbling and pothole-filled secondary roads. He was also on the hook for his promise made during the State of the State address in January to use some of the money from the Roads to Prosperity bond issue approved by the voters in 2017 on secondary road repairs.
That view clashed with Smith’s vision. As a professional engineer who had a long career with the Federal Highways Administration, Smith believed the bond money would be better used for larger road and bridge construction projects.
The Secretary felt strongly that, as a policy matter, the state should use “pay as you go” funds for ongoing maintenance. These funds included the increased revenue from DMV fees, motor vehicle registration and motor vehicle sales tax approved by the Legislature in 2017.
Smith thought it unwise to use borrowed money that the state would be paying off for the next 25 years on patching and other maintenance projects that would only last four or five years. Instead, the Secretary floated the idea of asking lawmakers to dedicate more money from the general fund for the maintenance, a proposal that likely would have gained bipartisan support.
Smith’s logic makes fiscal sense. However, roads also have a political component; West Virginians are increasingly frustrated over the deteriorating highways. They overwhelmingly supported the bond issue—it passed with 73 percent support—believing their roads would get fixed, and they are upset when their roads are left unrepaired and the potholes get worse!
The dispute between Justice and Smith came to a head as the Governor made plans for a Wednesday press conference to announce a major highways maintenance program using some bond money. The Governor was ready to move ahead with his road maintenance plan and did not want a Transportation Secretary who was not fully on board.
“I want a new direction to be taken with our Department of Transportation, a return to the core mission of maintaining the quality of our secondary roads and bridges,” Justice said in a news release announcing Smith’s firing.
It’s not as easy to solve the road problem as it might seem. The state has fallen way behind on routine maintenance, although some districts are in much worse shape than others.
One of the issues is finding and keeping highway workers. This is increasingly difficult because of competition from the oil and gas industry that culls the best workers with higher pay. Private contractors hired by the state to do road work also have trouble competing with oil and gas.
Candidly, there will never be enough money to fix all the roads. The 2015 Blue Ribbon roads report estimated it would cost an additional $750 million annually to “improve the highway system from where it stands today.” And let’s not forget that of the 40,000 miles of roads maintained by the state, only slightly more than one-fourth of those miles are eligible for federal aid.
The palace intrigue over Smith’s dismissal is of interest inside the beltway (if we had a beltway). However, West Virginia motorists are far more concerned about “fixing the damn roads #FTDR.”