The attempt this legislative session to provide funding for major highway maintenance and construction has hit a significant pothole. This week, two road funding bills that passed the Senate died in the House.
The House Finance Committee failed to take up SB 477 that would have added 4.5 cents a gallon to the state’s gasoline tax (raising it to 25 cents a gallon) and would have increased DMV fees from $30 to $50. The committee also left off the agenda SB 482 which would have raised tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike.
Governor Justice accused House Speaker Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha) of pulling the bills in a retaliatory move. The road bills are integral to the Governor’s promise to jump start the state’s economy by putting up to 48,000 people to work on $2.8 billion of road projects.
However, a House source said the Republican leaders were never going to run the tax and fee increase bills.
Instead, House Republican leaders favor Senate Joint Resolution 6, which authorizes the Governor to put a road bond before the voters. The resolution says that when a bond is approved, the legislature shall provide for a collection of taxes to pay for the bonds.
In other words, Armstead is willing to support higher highway-related taxes if voters say they are willing to accept those taxes to pay for the road construction. The Speaker is also worried that if voters reject the bond, and the tax increases are already in effect, motorists will face higher gas prices without the benefit of financing major road projects.
The Governor wanted to pass the tax increases and then go to the voters with the bond. Supporters of the Governor’s plan, including the Contractors Association of West Virginia, believe going to the voters first is a recipe for failure.
President Mike Clowser believes it’s just too easy for opponents to mobilize voters to say “no” to a higher gas tax, and he’s probably right. How many people are willing to vote for higher gasoline prices, even if it’s just a few cents a gallon?
Also, in a broader sense, many West Virginians who are feeling the cumulative affect of all taxes, fees and fixed costs in their lives, will take advantage of the opportunity to stand against a higher cost of any kind.
But while we are having this debate—yet again—our roads and bridges continue to crumble. TRIP, a national transportation research group, reports that 29 percent of the state’s major roads are in poor condition and the state has the fifth highest rate in the nation of structurally deficient bridges.
The TRIP report estimates these bad roads and bridges cost West Virginia motorists an additional $758 million each year for repairs, wear and tear and accelerated vehicle depreciation. Additionally, the state’s traffic fatality rate is higher than the national average, and bad roads contribute to that.
The preamble to the state Constitution calls for West Virginia to provide for “the common welfare” of the people. That’s a broad category that can include any number of services, but clearly roads and infrastructure are integral to the prosperity and well-being of our citizens.
Governor Justice could not pull his road plan across the finish line. That’s unfortunate. We’ve now lost out on an immediate investment in the state’s roads and the economic benefits associated with the construction. But House Republicans made no secret of their reluctance to raise gas taxes and tolls without first receiving approval from the voters.
Now the Legislature must at least approve the road bond amendment so the Governor, contractors, labor organizations and motorists who are tired of our crumbling infrastructure can rally the support necessary to win voter approval and #FTDR (Fix The Damn Roads).