Facing Up to Road Funding

Secondary roads are a lot like the weather. Lots of people in West Virginia talk about them, but no one ever seems to do anything.

Actually, that isn’t quite accurate. During the past decade, we have done something: We’ve reduced the Division of Highways budget.

Yes, reduced. During fiscal 2011, the DOH was budgeted for $1,352,895,000. This year, legislators and Gov. Jim Justice agreed on $1,334,315,083 for the highways agency. That’s more than $18 million less than we spent 10 years ago, when construction and repair costs were much lower.

All this comes up because former state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher is running for governor against the man who fired him, Gov. Jim Justice. One of Thrasher’s themes is that Justice isn’t doing enough to get roads back in shape.

To his credit, Thrasher isn’t blaming the root cause of the problem on Justice. “This is a problem we got into a long time ago,” the challenger said during a campaign appearance a few days ago.

Indeed it is. We’ve known for a long time that we weren’t spending enough money on road maintenance. A “blue ribbon” commission appointed during former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration studied the challenge for months and came up with the conclusion that — wait for it — we need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on roads each year.

Thrasher thinks we ought to be allocating $700 million a year for the purpose. That’s roughly twice the $336.4 million in the DOH’s maintenance line item for this year.

Analyzing how much is spent on secondary roads and bridges is a difficult task. I suspect no one can come up with a definitive answer, particularly because the budget terminology has changed over time.

An illustration: This year’s budget includes $336.4 million for secondary road maintenance. Fiscal 2011 included $320 million — but it also featured, separately, $70 million for “maintenance, contract paving and secondary road maintenance” and another $40 million for “bridge repair and replacement.” This year’s budget lacks the two latter line items. So, depending on how the DOH actually spent and spends its money, it may be that the total cut out of secondary roads is even higher than it appears at first glance.

But the bottom line remains that total DOH funding for this year is less than 10 years ago.

Then there’s Justice’s “Roads to Prosperity” campaign. With the promise of road improvements and repairs in all 55 counties, voters in 2017 approved a $1.6 billion bond issue for the initiative. Justice says federal funds will swell the total to $2.8 billion. Some of it will be spent on secondary road repairs.

And, don’t forget that the fiscal 2019 state road budget was increased by about $68 million over the $1.339 billion initial spending plan earlier this summer. Much of that increase will go to secondary roads.

Again, I’ll bet no one in Charleston can, with a straight face, answer the question of precisely how much we’re spending on secondary roads.

We know it isn’t enough, however. If anything, Thrasher’s $700 million goal may not be adequate.

And there’s the question of where he thinks we can find the additional $350 million or so.

It wouldn’t be too unsafe a bet to suggest that during the coming months, Justice will point to whatever progress has been made in repairing secondary roads, then suggest that Thrasher is the higher-taxes candidate. Perhaps he is.

But the bottom line is that for many years, we haven’t been realistic in what it takes to keep our roads and bridges in good condition. We increased fuel taxes by 3.5 cents per gallon in 2017, but that was only a drop in the bucket. Perhaps Thrasher, by bringing the subject up again, is doing us the favor of reminding us we’ve been dodging the problem too long.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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