On June 20, 1863, Arthur Boreman stood on a platform in Wheeling and took the oath of office to become West Virginia’s first Governor. Later in the day, he sent his written inaugural address to the Legislature.
According to John C. Morgan in his book West Virginia Governors, Boreman “suggested establishment of an office of superintendent of public works, who would see to collections on toll roads and maintenance of highways.”
Thus, the tone was set early for West Virginia’s Governors to take responsibility for the state’s roads. We can complain to our legislators and criticize the local Department of Highways, but on roads the buck stops at the Governor’s desk.
Governor Justice did his best at Wednesday’s news conference to deflect some of the criticism for the condition of the roads by blaming previous administrations. “If we’re going to be factual, we starved ourselves,” Justice said. “We absolutely sold equipment that could have been doing maintenance in the counties.”
“Back in the Manchin administration, we disarmed ourselves and we didn’t have any money when Earl Ray (Tomblin) 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,” Justice said.
It is true that the state has fallen behind on routine maintenance and there is never enough money to fix all the roads. However, neither Manchin nor Tomblin is the Governor. All roads, regardless of their condition, lead to the current Governor’s office.
Justice has promised to direct more money to repairs, buy new equipment and hire more workers, while simultaneously creating a sense of urgency for the Department of Highways to return to its core mission of maintenance. “We have got to get it moving,” Justice said, “And we’ll get it going right now.”
That’s what West Virginians want to see. They are exasperated over collapsed pavement, potholes and poor drainage. The road bond approved by the voters in 2017 was supposed to free up more of DOH’s annual budget for routine maintenance, but there is very little evidence that has happened.
“I think we just need to refocus our highways department,” the Governor said. That’s easier said than done. Highways has a history of district fiefdoms that make it difficult for even the state’s chief executive to pull rank.
The Governor’s new point man on roads is Byrd White. The long-time associate of the Governor will serve as interim highways commissioner, replacing Tom Smith, who the Governor fired last weekend.
It’s debatable whether White should be congratulated or pitied. Justice is a big picture guy, meaning it will be up to White to try to solve the many challenges that come with trying to keep our roads in halfway decent shape.
But then again, Justice is the Governor and he owns the road issue. “I told the people of this state we were going to fix the damn roads,” Justice said. “That’s exactly what I told ‘em. I haven’t changed my philosophy in any way, shape, or fashion.”
I’m not sure if 19th century West Virginians held Governor Boreman to his pledge on road maintenance, but those who travel the state today will have no problem making Governor Justice accountable for the roads.