Publication: Charleston Gazette-Mail
Release date: January 14, 2016
by Phil Kabler, Statehouse Reporter
One topic was conspicuously absent in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s State of the State address Wednesday: Funding for the state’s deteriorating highways.
“I was very disappointed,” said Jan Vineyard, president of the West Virginia Trucking Association, and a member of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways and West Virginians for Better Transportation.
“I realize we’re in a tough shape economically, but I thought this was one place where we could make investments and see us get our investments back,” she said.
Mike Clowser, executive director of the state Contractors Association, said Thursday he’s optimistic the 2016 Legislature will not ignore the dire need to increase funding to maintain the state’s highways.
“We think we pretty much knew it wasn’t going to be in his speech last night,” Clowser said. “The question going forward is, what is going to be done?”
Last May, the governor’s commission, made up of legislators, state and local officials, industry and labor representatives, scholars and citizens, concluded the state needs to increase the roughly $1 billion a year it spends on highways by $750 million a year in order to adequately maintain existing roads, and by an additional $350 million a year to complete planned highways construction projects.
The commission instead recommended $114 million in year in new revenue, primarily from increased DMV fees and sales taxes on vehicle purchases, as well as a $1 billion road bond issue, to be paid off by keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike through 2049.
However, those recommendations were widely panned by legislators, including House Roads and Transportation Chairman Marty Gearhart, R-Mercer, who previously called the commission’s work “a colossal failure.”
Clowser noted that not only is there no proposal for additional funding for highways, but automatic downward adjustments in the state gas tax the last two years also have cut funding by $37 million, and one of Tomblin’s budget-balancing proposals would shift another $9 million from Highways to general revenue.
Clowser said passage of a federal highways appropriations bill late last year was helpful, but only amounts to an additional $10 million a year of road funding for the state.
He said that after years of stressing the deteriorating and hazardous condition of state roads, he intends to promote highways funding this session as an economic development tool.
“The key for us right now is jobs, and the key for West Virginia is jobs,” he said.
Clowser said an infusion of highways funds would go a long way toward offsetting a multi-year decline in construction jobs in the state.
Vineyard agreed, noting, “I think it would be economic development for West Virginia to figure out a way to fund highways.”
Brent Walker, spokesman for the Department of Transportation, said highways officials were not surprised or disappointed by the omission in the State of the State address.
“Just because there wasn’t any mention of highways funding or any bills tossed out there, doesn’t mean that there won’t be discussion in the Legislature this session,” he said.