Publication: WV Gazette-Mail
Release Date: February 11 2016
By Phil Kabler
Used to be, the state Court of Claims paid out an average of 700 to 800 claims a year for vehicles damaged because of poor road conditions, Clerk of the Court Cheryle Hall said Thursday.
Last year, those claims jumped to 1,018, and this year, hit 1,250 claims, Hall said.
She said the spike in claims is directly attributable to deteriorating road conditions statewide.
“I would say the bulk of these claims are for holes in the road,” she told the Senate Finance Committee.
Once the Court of Claims bill (SB 515) passes the Legislature, the state will pay $983,000 to those 1,250 claimants, an amount Hall said is kept down because the court generally awards payment only for the claimant’s auto insurance deductible.
“That’s why there’s a lot of $250, $1,000 claims,” she said.
However, Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, suggested the law is being abused, as more drivers are made aware the state will pay for vehicle damage.
“You want to know the reason the numbers are going up? Because the message is going up,” he said.
Blair recounted an incident last summer, when he blew a tire after hitting a pothole. While changing the tire, he said a driver pulled up and told him, “You know, the state will pay for that.”
“We can’t have every pothole fixed everywhere all the time,” Blair said of the vehicle damage claims. “I can’t see how it’s a burden of the state and the taxpayers.”
However, Hall responded, “It’s the failure of the state to maintain its roads. It’s not the claimants’ fault.” West Virginians for Better Transportation, a group advocating for increased state spending on road maintenance and construction, estimates state drivers spend $400 million a year on vehicle repairs resulting from poor road conditions.
In a related matter, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday discussed a resolution (SJR 6) for a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that, if approved by voters, would authorize the sale of up to $2 billion in state road bonds.
The resolution states that the Legislature is to enact a state tax sufficient to pay off the bonds in 25 years, but provides no specifics.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, lead sponsor of the resolution, said he did not have any specific taxes in mind to retire the bonds.
“My attitude on this — me personally — is I’d be willing to look at almost any reasonable option,” he said.
Among the recommendations issued last May, the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways proposed a $1 billion road bond issue, to be paid off by retaining tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike through 2049. Currently, the tolls are set to expire when the $300 million bond issue issued in 1989 is retired in 2019.
The resolution requires a two-thirds passage vote in both houses in order to become a ballot referendum.
Trump said he brought up the resolution, which was not acted on Thursday, to “take the temperature” of the level of interest in the Senate for pursuing bonds to fund state roads.