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Kercheval: Who pays for road improvements?  

Publication: WV Gazette-Mail
Release Date: August 11 2015

By Hoppy Kercheval

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., has proposed a doubling of the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax over the next four years to fund highway construction and transit systems.

Tax increases are anathema to most politicians for obvious reasons, and Carper’s plan carries significant sticker shock, but he deserves credit for at least proposing that those who use the roads pay for them.

Yes, we already do pay road taxes when we buy gas — 53 cents a gallon (35 cents West Virginia state tax, 18 cents federal tax) — but those taxes collected here and across the country are not keeping pace with demand. The federal Highway Trust Fund has run a deficit since 2008, largely because of increased fuel efficiency and the diminished value of the funds collected.

The federal gas tax was last raised 21 years ago, from 14 cents to 18.4 cents per gallon. According to the non-partisan Tax Foundation, “Over the last two decades, inflation has eaten away at its purchasing power. Today, the gas tax’s value is 36 percent lower than it was in 1994.”

Congress has avoided the problem like a motorist dodging a pothole. Last month, the Senate approved a House-passed bill that temporarily funds the program until October 29 by moving $8 billion out of the general fund. That was the 34th extension since 2008. The Senate did pass a long-term bill, but the House would not agree to it.

The Tax Foundation suggests the best and fairest fix is an increase in the federal gas tax with an inflation adjuster going forward. “The gas tax conforms to the user-pays principle on which the trust fund is based,” according to the Foundation.

The Hill reports that if the gas tax had been indexed for inflation when it was last raised, “drivers would be paying about 30 cents a gallon on their purchases now.”

No one likes more taxes, but one recent report suggests we’re not paying as much in gas taxes now as we think. A study last year by Michigan State University found that three-quarters of motorists questioned overestimated how much they were actually paying in gas taxes. Half said their gas taxes were more than twice the actual amount.

The researchers concluded that a general misunderstanding of gas taxes contributes to public resistance toward any increase. “Voters who substantially overestimate the magnitude of gasoline taxes are willing to pay much smaller amounts (including zero) for additional highway investment.”

The importance of infrastructure in America dates back to its origins. George Washington said in 1785 even before he was elected president, “The credit, the saving, and the convenience of this country all require that our great roads leading from one public place to another should be straightened and established by law. To me these things seem indispensably necessary.”

Just as it was 230 years ago, we understand the importance of roads, but we have yet to come to terms with having to pay for them.

Kercheval is host of Talkline, broadcast statewide by the MetroNews Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon weekdays. Listen locally on WCHS 580 AM.

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Statehouse Beat: No movement on highways funding  

Publication: WV Gazette-Mail
Release Date: August 01 2015

By Phil Kabler

In the past, the Legislature has met monthly in the off-season to get updated on issues that are likely to come up in the next legislative session. This year, legislators are taking a summer-long siesta, so we’ll carry on without them to periodically gauge where we stand with key issues pending:

Highways funding. Release of the final version of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways report in May was greeted about as enthusiastically as the release of the preliminary document in September 2013.

While most agree that state roads are in seriously bad shape because of underfunding, increasing fees, taxes and Turnpike tolls is a tough sell in an election year. (It probably won’t help that in 2011, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a bill to raise DMV fees by $40 million a year to raise revenue for the Road Fund.)

A meeting earlier this month between Tomblin, Senate President Bill Cole, and House Speaker Tim Armstead on highways funding was inconclusive, and while additional meetings are planned, none has been scheduled.

“We’re trying to coordinate schedules to get together again,” Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said. “They’re three busy men.”

That doesn’t sound like negotiations are exactly homing in on a workable funding plan.

Meanwhile, for those convinced that the state can go a long way toward closing the billion-dollar revenue gap for Highways by eliminating waste, the Legislature is about to finalize a $540,000 contract with Deliotte and Touche for a performance audit of the division.

Between now and Dec. 31, the firm is to conduct “an independent assessment of the DoH’s organizational structure, programs and operations, and determine whether they are operating effectively and efficiently in carrying out the mission of the DoH.”

Sounds a little bit like the Public Works LLC audit commissioned by then-Gov. Joe Manchin in 2005, which (according to the administration) found more than $48 million of savings, famously including $1 million a year of savings by recalibrating Highways’ salt spreaders.

My hunch is the new audit will find enough savings to cover its cost, but nowhere near enough to make a dent in the enormous funding shortfall.

________

The $3.04 million contract to enhance Capitol Complex perimeter security – including installing a wall and security fence around the governor’s mansion and converting most of the two parking lots north of the Culture Center into a bus turnaround – was formally awarded Friday afternoon to Wiseman Construction of Charleston.

Let the complaints about the fence, lost parking, tree removal officially begin!

________

Finally, regarding efforts by the West Virginia Commission on Presidential Debates to leverage the historic Kennedy-Humphrey debate as a way to help bring one of the 2016 presidential debates to Charleston, reference to a Gazette review calling the 1960 televised debate a “boring gabfest” caught the attention of the Gazette-Mail newsroom.

Naturally, longtime editor Jim Haught, who was a reporter at the time, was asked if he was the author of the commentary, which he suggested it sounded more like the work of L.T. Anderson.

Actually, it was written by George Lawless, who was the Gazetteer of the era, the title for the Gazette’s humor columnist, a distinction that was later passed on to Jim Dent and Terry Marchal. (The tradition is carried on these days [sans title] by Rick Steelhammer.)

In today’s terms, Lawless’ review might be described as snarky: “After the program –which rambled from coal mines to out(ter) space—oozed to its conclusion, there was visable [sic] disappointment along press row. Reporters were silently cheering for blood; they got strawberry ice cream instead. ‘I’ve talked worse than that to my publisher,’ one news-hawk jeered.”

Lawless also noted that JFK’s nameplate was prominent on-screen, which he speculated was necessary so the cameraman would not confuse Harvard-man Kennedy with “Yale-man W. E. Chilton, who spelled out questions sent in by Gazette readers.”

West Virginia State University history professor Billy Joe Peyton reminded me that those articles and more can be found at an excellent online exhibit, “Battleground West Virginia: Electing the President in 1960” at the Division of Culture and History’s website. (Peyton’s students researched the timeline of campaign stops for both candidates featured in the exhibit.)

I commented to Dr. Peyton that there seemed to be very little statewide newspaper coverage of the debate, and none mentioned its historical nature as one of the first-ever televised debates among presidential hopefuls.

I said it reminded me of newspaper accounts of Jackie Robinson’s first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the New York Times game day story, for instance, Robinson was not mentioned until two-thirds through the article, with no acknowledgment that he had broken baseball’s color barrier.

As Peyton noted, it sometimes takes the perspective of time to appreciate historic events.

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Capito highlights benefits of transportation bill

WV Press Association

August 04 2015

NITRO, W.Va. – On Monday, August 3, U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) held a press conference at the UPS Terminal in Nitro, West Virginia highlighting the Senate’s passage of a six-year transportation funding bill, known as the DRIVE Act, which is needed to fix West Virginia’s crumbling roads, bridges and highways, improve traveler safety and move goods throughout the state.

A long-term transportation bill is an important step towards improving West Virginia’s infrastructure, promoting economic growth and creating certainty needed to advance critical projects, such as Corridor H and the King Coal Highway. The DRIVE Act passed the Senate on Thursday, and the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to consider this bill following the August recess in September.

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Senator: No quick fixes for state’s roads  

Publication: MetroNews
Release Date: June 29 2015

By MetroNews Staff

CHARLESTON W.Va. — The DOH audit remains underway, and State Senator Kent Leonhardt (R-Mononglia, 02) says we can expect it some time in December.

In the meantime, Leonhardt admitted that the understaffed Division of Highways has a lot of work to do.

“I know they’re working and they are short-handed,” Sen. Leonhardt said on the MetroNews-affiliated “The Mike Queen Show” on the AJR News Network. “They’re even using some prison labor to try and get some of this done.”

Senator Leonhardt said that this audit is the next step down the path of getting the state’s roads fixed.

“When that comes out, we’ll be able to take that and use the Blue Ribbon Commission as a starting point on a conversation on how do we really address this right,” he said.

The chief concern for the Republican senator is money. He doesn’t want to begin adding new revenues until he’s certain that any inefficient spending has subsided.

“Before we try to look for new revenue sources, we want to make sure we’re using what we have properly,” said Senator Leonhardt.

Senator Leonhardt claims that the neglect of roads has been long, widespread, and isn’t an easy fix.

“We have ten years of neglect leading up to this,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to fix this overnight.”

Senator Leonhardt also stressed patience to frustrated motorists.

“Let’s face it: we haven’t put any more money, we haven’t put any more attention on the roads until we’ve reached a crisis point,” he said. “And now that we’re at a crisis point everyone wants it fixed right away.”

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