CHARLESTON, W.Va. — During a gathering that lasted about 15 minutes, Gov. Jim Justice gave highways crews from all over the state a mission.
“I’m going to give you 72 hours to write down every single road, every single road in your county, everything you think is wrong,” the governor told district engineers and county supervisors from all over West Virginia.
Then, he said, they have another 24 hours to categorize: “Really bad, really important and just wrong.”
“In the same 72 hours” he said, “I’ve got to have what you think you need to do aggressive maintenance all the time, all the time.”
Then he made a gesture a few feet off the ground: “I want a whole bunch of paper.”
Once the governor has those ideas, he said, his administration will work to make sure local highways districts have the funding, employees and equipment to do the work.
Justice, who is also a high school girls basketball coach, described highways workers as a team without the proper athletic wear.
“We’ve got to give you a chance to get in the game,” he said. “I mean, we’ve taken your tennis shoes away from you and we’ve given you sandals and the game is going 5,000 miles an hour, and when you’re in the game you can’t possibly be very good at it because you can’t even run.”
After the session, highways workers said they were glad to have been asked for their view. Many lingered in the sun outside the Culture Center before heading home.
“Basically, he’s asked us to in 72 hours to come up with a plan to evaluate our secondary routes, what is the current condition — list our good, our fair and our bad roads and come up with a plan of attack on how we’re going to address the needs,” said James Rossi from District 8, which covers Randolph, Tucker, Pocahontas and Pendleton counties.
Rossi, who said he has worked for Highways for 29 years, said he has never had a governor make a request in this way.
“It was good interaction,” he said.
The governor’s discussion was welcome, said Travis Knighton of District 1, which includes Kanawha, Boone, Clay, Putnam and Mason.
“We’re excited about it because he is putting a big emphasis on the roads, and we know they’ve been bad for years and we’re happy he’s taking the lead in helping us get this problem solved,” Knighton said.
He said some lists of road needs are available already, but will be enhanced to meet the governor’s request.
“Well, we typically have lists of what is wrong with the roads. We don’t have every road listed,” Knighton said, “but we already have a big chunk of that ready to give to him.”
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, was among those in the crowd. Blair was glad the governor had the event but wished the highways workers had been able to share more of their own ideas right then and there.
Blair would have liked for the highways workers to have been the ones on stage.
“Then it’s not so much speaking to them, but let them speak to you,” Blair said. “Let them tell what’s going on. Find out why the work’s not getting done, what the hindrances are and what the possible fixes are.”
In recent weeks, Justice has emphasized his commitment to improving the maintenance of West Virginia’s roads. That followed an outcry from counties, including Preston, where a state of emergency was declared.
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.
Roads were a persistent topic of the most recent legislative session, and lawmakers were intrigued in advance of today’s meeting.
“It sounds like more of a photo opp,” said Senator Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, this morning on “The Watchdog Radio Network,” hosted by Howard Monroe in the Wheeling area.
“It just doesn’t sound like something that’s going to be very productive as far as getting our roads fixed.”
Ihlenfeld said better management of West Virginia’s highways resources is the key to improvement.
“I think it’s about doing a better job with the resources that we do have,” he said. “We don’t always have the human resources we need to get the job done.”
Senator Glenn Jeffries, D-Kanawha, said West Virginians have expected greater progress on road maintenance following the passage of a statewide bond issue.
“The perception was, we’ve passed the road bonds, now we can fix the roads,” Jeffries said today on “580 Live” with Danny Jones.
Justice, during the gathering at the Culture Center, said he wants to be on the same side as highways workers.
“I’ll be your worst nightmare if we’re not pulling the rope together. But I’ll be your greatest ally,” he said.
And with that, Justice wrapped up his message and sent the highways workers home.
“That’s all from me. I hope it wasn’t a long drive here. But if it was, good enough. I drive a lot all the time,” the governor said.
He concluded, “Unless you all have something to say, I’m done. I’d say go home. You’ve got 71 hours and just a few minutes now. Be good. I’m done. Take care.”