CHARLES TOWN – Jefferson County’s legislators, both incumbents and newcomers, all agree on two things: roads are vital for the life and economic development of communities throughout the state, but there are no simple solutions for emerging funding problems. They suggest it will take a radical change in the way the state pays for road development and maintenance.
They are looking forward to a report scheduled to be released in February of next year from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, which was named to review the problems and generate possible solutions. The commission paint a picture of massive problems facing the state’s infrastructure.
One 2010 study — entitled “Highway and Bridge Needs vs. Revenue” — noted that, adjusted for inflation, the annual State Road Fund revenue had declined some 30 percent from 1999 to 2008. Returning revenue to the 1999 level, the report stated, would require $300 million a year in new revenue, a tax increase of around $144 per person in the state.
Even more, a 2011 study found that 27 percent of West Virginia’s major rural roads were in poor condition or worse, the seventh worst rate in the nation. The report also found that 14 percent of the state’s bridges were structurally deficient, the 17th worst rate in the nation.
“It’s huge. It’s in the hundreds of millions of deficiency in road funding to repair, maintain and replace what we already have,” said Sen. Herb Snyder, a Democrat. “No one thinks that raising the gas tax is palatable. We’re already higher than the states around us – 12.7 cents higher than Virginia.”
Despite the size of the funding shortfall, all of the legislators said they would oppose a gas tax increase in the current economic climate.
“I don’t think the answer is more taxes,” said newly elected Republican Delegate Paul Espinosa.
“Nationally, it’s a problem because people are driving less and cars are more fuel efficient,” Snyder said. “Most states fund most of their roads … from gas taxes. As we go to more fuel efficient cars and we go to alternative fuels, particularly electricity, that whole old school of having it all funded by gas taxes is just not cutting it. The cost of road construction and maintenance continues to go up.”
One of the greatest difficulties for road planning is the volatility of the Road Fund’s key revenue source, said Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, a Democrat.
“The largest problem facing our transportation infrastructure is the lack of a sustainable and stable, dedicated funding stream and strategic long-term planning,” Lawrence said. “Although the gasoline tax is dedicated through state code as funding for upgrades, repairs, and new construction of infrastructure, the volatile market makes it difficult to forecast.”
Sen. John Unger, a Democrat, said adequate infrastructure, including roads and bridges, is the single most important factor in economic development.
“Our transportation and infrastructure, which includes water and sewer and broadband and all that, is the very fabric and foundation that creates a competitive environment to attract businesses,” Unger said. “You can give all the tax breaks that you have. You can give away land. But if people can’t move products and ideas and communicate, then they are not going to come.”
Unger’s sentiments were echoed by other lawmakers.
New Jefferson County lawmaker Stephen Skinner said the situation may partially resolve itself as the economy pulls out of recession.
“Once the economy starts picking up, our revenue into the road fund will also start picking up,” he said. “One of the things we have to pay attention to is whether our road fund is growing, maintaining or declining.”
Espinosa said one important step would be to pass legislation altering the “prevailing wage” – the legally mandated level of pay for workers employed on public works projects.
“When we do have a road improvement or public works project, a good percentage of that grant is eaten up by what some would consider an excessive prevailing wage that is not reflective of the actual prevailing wage in the area,” he said.
Snyder said West Virginia differs from most other states in that the state government is responsible for almost all the roads not contained within municipal boundaries. In other states, much of the funding for county roads comes from property taxes, he noted.
“That’s an idea – it would be a major change – to fund more roads at the county level. That has not been done since then the Depression,” Snyder said.
Unger said a law he authored while chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee offers localities a novel option for financing road improvements: diverting increased tax revenues generated by new development into road projects that help sustain that development. The law, called the Community Empowerment Transportation Act, or CETA, has yet to be implemented, but it could become more important as state and federal highway funds are squeezed, Unger said.
“What CETA does is allow for counties to partner with the state to look at funding models to build roads and to build out infrastructure,” Unger said. “They’re going to have to start utilizing this mechanism and start contributing to the roads to get their needs addressed.”
Unger said one roadbloack for the law he wrote is that counties still feel that the primary obligation of road financing rests with the state and the federal government. Those days are coming to an end, he said.
“The counties ought to be a partner in this just like the municipalities are,” he said.