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Questions Raised Over West Virginia Using CARES Act Funds for Road Repairs

WHEELING — Delegate Shawn Fluharty wonders if West Virginia won’t have to repay the federal government much of the $50 million in coronavirus aid the state intends to use for road repairs near hospitals.

The Medical Access Roads program in West Virginia is a project being funded with $50 million from the $1.25 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

Nearly $4 million of the funding is on its way to the Northern Panhandle to repair access routes to local hospitals. Some of these roads have been damaged by oil and gas industry use, according to information provided by the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

“Absolutely the oil and gas industry is getting off the hook — they have been getting off for years,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio.

“It is absurd to think we are going to use the CARES Act money for roads when we know full well this money has to be tied directly to the pandemic. I worry this money now will have to be paid back to the federal government. The usage is outside the parameters of (what) the federal government has given us to use funding from the CARES Act.”

State Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio County, also agreed, raising concerns about how the money will be spent.

“This is not what Congress intended — for the CARES Act funding to repair roads — when it pushed the money out to the states,” Ihlenfeld said. “I am concerned the U.S.Treasury Department will come back to our state once the money is used in that fashion and ask that we return the money.

“That will be a huge problem for us, because we will have to come up with $50 million we do not have. That makes me anxious and nervous about the decision by Gov. Jim Justice to spend the money in this fashion.”

The total amount earmarked for the Northern Panhandle through the Medical Access Program is $3.995 million.

The largest project is in Marshall County, and has an estimated price tag of $1.6 million, according to information provided by WVDOT. Slip repairs are slated for Bane Lane in Pleasant Valley, a primary route between Moundsville and Cameron.

This road has been damaged by oil and gas trucks, WVDOT states in its information.

Major construction in Tyler County, meanwhile, is expected to cost $1.3 million. Work will happen to repair slips along W.Va. 23, a primary route in Tyler County. The Shirley VFD is located along the route, and DOT states it also has been heavily damaged by oil and gas traffic.

Four other projects also are slated for the Northern Panhandle:

— In Brooke County for repair of a road slip on Genteel Ridge. The road is used by multiple volunteer fire departments, who have complained about the road’s condition. Oil and gas operations have paved a portion of the road. The estimated cost is $475,000.

— In Ohio County for repairs to road failures along Mt. deChantal Road leading to Wheeling Hospital. The estimated cost is $345,000.

— In Wetzel County for repairs to road failures along East Benjamin Drive going to both front and rear entrances to Wetzel County Hospital. The cost is $170,000.

— In Hancock County for repairs to Pennsylvania Avenue leading directly to Weirton Medical Center, which is described as being in “very rough condition.” The cost is $105,000.

While the industry has free use of major highways, operators are required to post bonds to use smaller access roads in rural counties.

The problem is the bonds that are posted typically aren’t enough to cover the cost of repairing the road, according to state Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“I think they are getting off pretty easy — they’re just not paying enough money,” Clements said of the oil and gas industry. “Don’t get me wrong — they have done some good work, and repaired a lot of roads beyond what they had to and fixed them up. But they run these small back roads, and it just destroys them. They weren’t made to handle the weight.”

He said the Legislature may look to increase the amount of bond required of oil and gas industry operators to use West Virginia’s rural roads, but that isn’t likely to happen soon. The legislature is reluctant to increase taxes on the oil and gas industry while the price of natural gas remains low, according to Clements.

Clements said the CARES Act funding definitely will help West Virginia repair rural roads as it has lost an estimated $38 million this year in highway fuel taxes so far in 2020.

“People were not traveling, and it has put a big hole in their (the WVDOT’s) budget,” he said.

The WVDOT also has extended the time drivers have to renew their licenses and registration. That cost the state $36 million during the last quarter, Clements said.

“We will get that money back, because people will eventually have to renew,” he said. “But the $38 million, we will never see that.”

Fluharty said decisions on how to spend CARES Act funding should be up to the Legislature.

“The law is clear on this,” he said. “The governor is operating as king outside the confines of our Constitution.

“This is a decision that should be made by the legislature per our constitution. We don’t suspend our Constitution because of the coronavirus. pandemic, and that is what he has done.”

There is bi-partisan agreement among members in the House of Delegates that they are willing to call back into session to make decisions about the CARES Act funding, according to Fluharty.

Ihlenfeld questions whether $345,000 should be spent to make repairs to Mt. deChantal Road, as the hospital remains accessible without repairs.

“Wouldn’t it be better used to help people obtain better internet access?” he asked. “That would be more in lines with the CARES Act. It now is critical that as many people as possible have broadband, and that money could be better spent on connectivity in homes.”

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