CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice says West Virginia needs to go back to basics to improve road conditions.
“We weren’t getting it done at the pace it needs to be able to have gotten done,” Justice said.
During a press conference Wednesday at the Capitol, Justice described ways to pool more money for secondary roads maintenance. He also announced the hiring of his longtime associate, Byrd White, as interim highways chief.
“I told the people of this state we were going to fix the damn roads. That’s exactly what I told ’em. I haven’t changed my philosophy in any way, shape or fashion,” Justice said.
The governor described gathering about $240 million to shore up local roads through three sources: diverting some from the $915 million in bond money West Virginia has already drawn down for “Roads to Prosperity” projects, using some “pay-as-you-go” revenue that had been intended to pay down future road bond debt and applying portion of state general revenue surplus.
He promised “Roads to Prosperity,” which was to begin with 10 major highways projects, will still be done.
“Hopefully the timeline will stay on timeline,” he said.
He described being frugal with the contracts on those big projects to gain extra dollars for other work.
“If you have $913 million,” he said, “we want to go through as best we possibly can and do every one of the projects but skinny them down as best we can and glean off dollars and still be able to do all the projects.”
Justice also described a blitz of workers, including temporary workers for spring and summer paving who could be kept permanently. And he said the state would need to invest in more machinery.
He said the highways system had been allowed to deteriorate over a period of years. “This all happened before little Jimmy ever came to town,” he said.
Justice then made reference to his predecessors in the Governor’s Office, Joe Manchin and Earl Ray Tomblin.
“We disarmed ourselves,” he said. “Back in the Manchin administration we disarmed ourselves and we didn’t have any money when Earl Ray was at the helm. We have created the all-time mother lode of a dog’s mess. Now you’ve got good people who are trying to straighten it out.”
An outcry has come from counties where the condition of secondary roads has become alarming. Preston County, for example, has declared an emergency because roads have gotten so bad.
Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker, and Delegate Terri Sypolt, R-Preston, who represent that region, were in the front row of today’s press conference.
Afterwards, Smith said he agrees with using general revenue surplus and “pay-as-you-go” dollars to address the maintenance problems. But Smith continued to object to using the existing bond money.
“West Virginia was sold on that roads bond for new bridges, finish highways, stuff like that,” he said. “I don’t want to pay 25 years on a culvert or fixing potholes.”
Smith agreed that the problems are longstanding but noted that Justice is now in his third year as governor.
“He made a statement this week, it is is not going to happen on his watch,” he said. “Well, it has. It has continued to happen on his watch.”
Senator Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, agreed with some of the governor’s funding ideas although he would have liked to have heard more description.
“I wish he would have been a little more specific in his outlay and his planning,” Sypolt said. “But this is a good first step. I think the proof will be in the pudding.”
But Sypolt, too, was cautious about using road bond money for ongoing maintenance.
“Diverting money that was meant for long-term projects and construction projects should not be used for short-term maintenance issues,” he said.
Justice for a couple of months has expressed interest in diverting some “Roads to Prosperity” bond money to improve maintenance on local roads. He received a standing ovation at his State of the State address in early January for mentioning the need to improve maintenance.
“There is no doubt the Department of Transportation is doing great work on our ‘Roads to Prosperity’ projects, but our secondary roads aren’t being addressed with the urgency needed,” Justice stated in an announcement for Wednesday’s press conference.
“This is the issue that we will address with this plan, and secondary roads will be the No. 1 priority of the department. These roads have been neglected for nearly two decades, and that’s not going to continue on my watch. The people of West Virginia deserve well-maintained roads.”
At the start of this week, the governor announced the firing of Transportation Secretary Tom Smith, who led the run-up to “Roads to Prosperity.” In a short statement, Justice said he wants “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 on Wednesday praised Smith but said, “We do have a differentiation of philosophy.”
Smith, originally from North Carolina, is an engineer who spent a long career with the Federal Highways Administration. In that job, he oversaw work on major West Virginia highways such as U.S. 35 and Appalachian Corridors D and H.
He served briefly as senior transportation advisor for the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington, D.C. before returning to West Virginia to join the Justice Administration.
Justice introduced the interim highways chief, Byrd White, by describing years of trust.
White, for the past 15 months, has served in the state Department of Revenue, in a role established to ensure out-of-state contractors pay their taxes. He has also been president of the Raleigh County Commission.
White was also manager of Black Knight Country Club in Beckley, which Justice’s family owned. And before that he was senior vice president for Justice Companies and senior vice president of Bluestone Industries, a part of Justice’s coal holdings.
Justice acknowledged that White’s expertise is in accounting, rather than engineering. But he believes he can do the job. He described meeting with White, his wife and senior adviser Bray Cary on Tuesday to work out arrangements.
“He’ll work until the cows come home,” Justice said.
Senator Smith hopes that choice works out.
“I don’t know anything about Mr. White. I know he doesn’t have any highways experience, which is a little bit of a concern,” Senator Smith said. “But you know, maybe that’s the best thing. Get somebody with fresh eyes looking at it.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. One part of me is a little skeptical about the appointment. But we’ll see.”
— Jeff Jenkins (@JeffJenkinsMN) March 13, 2019