CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice announced the immediate termination of Transportation Secretary Tom Smith on Sunday afternoon.
“I want 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 stated.
“I sincerely appreciate the service Tom has given to the State of West Virginia.”
The condition of West Virginia’s secondary roads was a hot topic during the regular legislative session, which ended at midnight Saturday.
Justice recently announced plans for a Wednesday announcement to address concerns about the roads.
Smith was dispatched late last month to Preston County, where road conditions caused local officials to talk in terms of an emergency.
That’s one of several north central West Virginia counties where leaders have been active in calling for improvements to secondary roads.
One of those has been House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor. On Sunday evening, Summers said she understands a change at the Department of Transportation may be necessary.
“Accountability is crucial in state government,” Summers stated. “If Governor Justice felt the mission of taking care of our road infrastructure was unmet then he must take action.
“The people are demanding and deserve better roads. I wish Tom Smith the best in his future endeavors. I look forward to working with the new Secretary to address the current road concerns.”
An audit by legislative staff early this year showed that although DOH district offices are expected to spend 70 percent of allocated dollars on their core maintenance plan, that doesn’t occur very often.
In two districts of concern — DOH District 4 and DOH District 5 — only two counties of the 13 highlighted reached that goal at least once during the nine-year study window, 2009-2017.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said the problems extend beyond the Transportation Secretary.
“Tom Smith was a quality guy. He had the knowledge and understanding of roads and transportation,” Prezioso said in a Sunday evening telephone interview. “I think the problem here lies with the Department of Highways. It has problems that aren’t easy to fix.
“It seemed through all the audits to do what he needs to do — it’s just the delivery of repairing the roads system. Logistically, it’s hard to find employees. It’s hard to compete with industries. It’s just a multitude of things within the department that need to be fixed, and I think Tom tried to fix those.”
Prezioso agreed that West Virginia’s secondary roads are in alarming condition.
“I’m sure he had a ton of legislators continually inquiring about their roads, how they needed repair. It’s just a tumultuous problem that’s going to take time to solve,” he said. “The roads need to be repaired immediately.”
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 made roads construction a priority of his administration when he took office in 2017, pushing for a statewide, $2.8 billion road bond program dubbed “Roads to Prosperity.” The emphasis was on new roads construction.
The governor and Smith went around the state, pushing for the program. The governor promised that Smith would be at the helm of a rapidly-improving roads system.
“I promised West Virginians that if they supported my Roads to Prosperity plan that it would not only let us get out and fix our current roads and bridges but it would also bring new construction projects, provide thousands of jobs and really boost our economy beyond belief,” Justice stated in a release from his office marking the one-year anniversary of the bond’s passage last October.
“And that’s exactly what’s happening and is going to continue to happen for years to come.
— Governor Jim Justice (@WVGovernor) March 12, 2018
Prezioso said finding someone new to oversee the highways system won’t be easy.
“It’s going to take someone to come in there and be able to hire and compete with existing industries or you’re going to have to contract those repair problems out. It’s going to take a whole new mindset, i think,” he said.
“It’s going to be difficult for anybody to step into that position and get immediate results. It’s going to take somebody with the knowledge and understanding of dealing with roads, someone who understands tate government, how it works, how our hiring system works. I don’t know that there’s a person out there who has that capability.”