CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginians who experienced recent increases in the gas tax and their DMV fees may have a reasonable question: Why is state government looking for even more money to fix the roads?
You are not alone.
“Why do we need additional revenue for roads?” asked Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, who was bemoaning a lack of specific information. “We can’t figure it out either.”
Gov. Jim Justice called a news conference last week to double down on efforts to improve secondary roads in West Virginia.
“It’s a crying shame the shape of our secondary roads, and we need to do something about it,” Justice said. “We weren’t getting it done at the pace that it needs to be able to have gotten done. We’ve got to fix the damn roads. That’s all there is to it.”
Justice said dedicating more money to road maintenance is a key aspect of the plan under development. He didn’t specify an amount, but described somewhere between an additional $196 million and $282 million, numbers that he seemed to be using as examples of what might be necessary.
“We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars,” Justice said.
But why hasn’t increased funding already resulted in visible improvement?
The answers include years of deferred maintenance, problems that extend beyond just funding and a road bond that emphasized big projects while treating secondary roads as a side benefit.
As part of the effort to work out the problems, Justice announced a Tuesday afternoon meeting at the state Culture Center with Division of Highways District Engineers and county supervisors from all over the state.
West Virginia has let its roads go for years.
Justice put that in his own words.
“This all happened before little Jimmy ever came to town.”
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways final report that came out in 2015 concluded that West Virginia had gotten woefully behind on highways maintenance.
The commission noted that current State Road Fund Revenues have not kept pace with inflation and no longer provide the financial resources to maintain the current system.
“If no increase in funding is provided, the quality level of the highway system will continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate and lead quickly to a very unsatisfactory level of service,” wrote the Blue Ribbon Commission.
Commission members concluded an additional $400 million a year would be necessary just to keep the highways system at the level it was at the time.
If another $1 billion a year could be provided, the commission wrote, “the highway system would display little or no deficiencies and those that did exist would be in lower volume roads.”
In the end, the commission took a vote, settling on an additional $750 million a year as the mark West Virginia should aim to hit. The vote was nine in favor to three against.
Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker, agreed that improvements have been ignored for too long. Smith spent much of this past legislative session pushing a bill meant to improve the state’s roads.
“I’m aggravated also, but the main reason is, the shape the roads are in there’s no way that we can get ‘em back to where they should be without some kind of additional funding because they have so many slips and slides across the state,” Smith said.
“Once we get the roads caught up then we can go back to what funding is allocated to keep them up.”
The road bond and secondary roads
Two years ago, West Virginia lawmakers passed bills increasing the gas tax, DMV fees and the privilege tax that people pay when they buy a new vehicle.
That was done in the runup to a statewide vote to authorize the “Roads to Prosperity,” a $1.6 billion General Obligation bond investment in 10 big highways improvements projects. The increased taxes and fees were aimed at paying down the bond debt.
Justice emphasized economic benefits of all the highways work. “What it will do for our state is unbelievable,” he said. “It will bring employment like crazy.”
But local roads were supposed to be improved too.
“The first year of increased DMV fees, increased wholesale gas tax, and increased sales tax on new vehicles resulted in approximately $130 million in new revenues for use on the State’s more local service roadways, likely the roads that pass your house,” according to the Department of Transportation’s Drive Forward WV page.
“These funds were distributed around the State for resurfacing of West Virginia and County Routes, small bridge repairs, and slip repairs. As the ‘Roads to Prosperity’ program is now underway, the influx of funds for new roadway construction and repairs will allow the WVDOH’s normal roadway maintenance funds to be dedicated to needs that could not otherwise be addressed.”
That hasn’t exactly worked out as planned.
An independent audit released last year showed West Virginia had, in fact, brought in an additional $126 million. But federal highways funding dropped $134 million during the same period.
Meanwhile, the road bond hasn’t exactly kicked into high gear.
West Virginia went to market with $800 million in bonds last May. Because of advantageous interest rates, the state actually wound up with bonds valued at $915 million.
According to documents available through the state Auditor’s Office, only $11,133,309.19 had been spent as of last week.
“They’re getting hundreds of millions of dollars and we’re not getting the road maintenance we should be,” Senator Smith said.
West Virginia’s roads don’t just have funding problems.
A recent state audit showed that of all 10 Department of Highways districts in West Virginia, none consistently spent the goal of 70 percent of their available funding on core maintenance.
“They say they have the money; they just can’t find the people to do the work,” Prezioso said. “I think there is money there, and money that hasn’t been spent on core maintenance.”
Staffing, equipment and management are all factors.
“Where do we put the blame on?” asked Senator Charles Clements, R-Wetzel. “I don’t know. Some say it’s lack of people. A lot of people say it’s lack of equipment.”
Justice last week proposed hiring hundreds of temporary workers for a spring roads blitz. The best of those workers, he suggested, could be kept on long-term.
And he said the state needs to re-invest in highways equipment that would be available at the county level.
“I’m talking about today we’ve got to hire hundreds of people to staff ourselves up on a county level, and we’ve got to be able to buy the equipment to do the work.”
House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said the potential expense still needs to be clarified.
“I think the reason we can’t be exactly specific is what is the money needed for. Is it for the actual work, the workers, to hire out contractors?” she said. “I don’t think the answer is as clear cut as people would like it to be.”
Smith said these plans should have been formed weeks ago.
“Here we are at March now and trying to figure out how we’re going to fix the roads. There could have been a plan ready, the funding could have been ready, we could have been way ahead of the game,” he said. “The whole thing is a shambles.”
Funding proposals by Justice
Justice last week suggested three sources for more money.
The first is diverting some from the $915 million in bond money West Virginia has already drawn down for “Roads to Prosperity” projects. Justice claims all the big projects can still be done on time.
The next is using some “pay-as-you-go” revenue that had been intended to pay down future road bond debt. That’s gas tax and DMV fee money that’s being collected but not yet applied to pay down bond debt.
“We’re not paying on bonds, so that money’s just laying there,” Smith said.
The last funding source is applying whatever is available from the general revenue surplus that West Virginia has been running.
“Let’s just make that dollar number as high as we can possibly make it,” Justice said.
Justice was clear last week that he does not anticipate raising more taxes.
“We’re not going to raise taxes,” he said. “We’re not going to do that under my watch.”
Clements is concerned that increasing costs means West Virginia might continually need to look for ways to keep its roads in shape. Eventually, he suggested, that might mean raising the gasoline tax again.
“The cost of construction just skyrockets,” said Clements, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “If we want good roads, we’re going to have to end up finding a way to pay for them.”
There are still a lot of questions: How much money is really necessary? How will it be applied? What’s the guarantee that the money will be used wisely? When can West Virginia be assured its roads are in adequate shape?
Summers is glad the questions are being raised.
“I’m just excited that there is attention being brought ot it and possibilities being put toward solutions,” she said. “All we know is the work was not getting done.”