Public Meeting On Highway Funding Set

WHEELING – West Virginia will need more than $1 billion in new revenue each year to maintain the state’s existing transportation system, state studies have shown.

Where that funding should come from – the state’s general fund budget or possible new taxes and tolls – will be discussed when members of a commission tasked with handling the matter meet later this month in Wheeling.

The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways will host two public forum sessions at Oglebay Park’s Wilson Lodge, with the first beginning at 4 p.m. July 30. On the agenda will be a discussion of challenges to the state’s transportation system, what the committee has learned about the overall condition of West Virginia’s roads and what revenue sources are available to repair them.

The meeting is open to the public. Those attending will be asked to fill out a survey regarding their thoughts and experiences on state highways, and a public comment session will conclude the meeting. The second session is set to begin at 5:40 p.m. and will follow the same format.

The commission has scheduled similar sessions throughout the state this summer.

Comprised of elected officials and private citizens, it is tasked with studying the condition and needs of the state’s transportation system, developing a long-term strategic plan of action and determining funding options.

Charles Clements, a commission member and also executive director of the W.Va. 2 and Interstate 68 Authority, said the major problem with funding the state’s highway system is that residents don’t pay enough toward its upkeep.

“You pay more for your car insurance than you do for the right to use the highway,” he said. “You pay more for your cell phone than for the privilege of traveling on West Virginia’s roads. We ask people the question, ‘Do you want better roads?’ Ninety-nine percent of people say ‘yes.’ But when we ask them how much they are willing to pay, that changes.”

The committee has generated a number of ideas as how to fund West Virginia’s Highway System, and one of these is to eliminate the excise tax on gasoline.

The committee instead is suggesting a 1 percent increase in the state’s sales tax – from 6 percent to 7 percent – with the additional revenue going toward highways.

Delegate Mike Ferro, D-Marshall, noted state funding for highways “is inadequate,” and members of the West Virginia Legislature are awaiting suggestions from the commission as to the best way to take action regarding highway improvements.

“In Marshall County, we have had an increase in heavy truck traffic, and it’s wearing down the roads to a great degree,” Ferro said. “We are just focused on the problems here, but every other county has its issues as well. When we drive on interstates, we don’t see what the secondary roads look like in other counties. Highway problems are not unique to West Virginia. Other states are having problems, as well.”

Delegate Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, said the Division of Highways “does a fair job” with fixing West Virginia’s roads “but not as soon or as well as everyone would like them.” He noted the agency faces challenges resulting from the natural gas boom.

“I’m all for the gas and oil industry and anything that produces job, but I do feel we have to make sure the state has the money to repair the road after everyone leaves,” he said. “We have to develop some way – maybe through a futures fund – to make sure our roads are safe and maintain them for West Virginia.”

Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, said a solution to the state’s highway funding problem actually was passed by the Legislature in 2011, but later vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Storch was one of just two Republicans, along with Delegate Amanda Pasdon, R-Monongalia, to join House Democrats and vote for Senate Bill 608, which was then sent on for Tomblin’s signature and rejected.

The bill would have raised some fees within the Department of Motor Vehicles, many of which hadn’t been updated since the 1970s, Storch said. The bill was expected to generate as much as $45 million annually for West Virginia’s roads.

“I’m definitely opposed to raising taxes, but infrastructure is one place where government has a place,” she said. “To allocate some money, then have the governor veto the bill … is counterproductive.”

Tomblin noted at the time the legislation contained a technical error that kept it from being signed into law, and that he thought it was wrong to raise taxes in any way during a recession.

The possibility of increased taxes did not sit well with Eastern Panhandle residents during the commission’s first session last week in Kearneysville. Many of the 60 residents and elected officials who attended said the best way to fund infrastructure projects was to cut waste and expenses, not to raise taxes.

Carol Hines came from Hampshire County to speak during the public comment period of that meeting. “I’m a private citizen and I have only two comments: accountability and cut waste,” she said.

Patricia Rucker of Harpers Ferry said she moved to West Virginia from Maryland 12 years ago because of lower taxes.

“But taxes have been going up and there’s a lot of waste,” she said. “Eliminating waste should be No. 1 before you come to us for more money.”