Delays on the road to roads funding

One of the issues that won’t be on the agenda for the current legislative session in Charleston is to consider ways to finance much-needed repairs to West Virginia’s 36,000 miles of roads. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has appointed a commission of legislators and industry representatives to come up with a long-term plan and the final report isn’t due until May 1, nearly three weeks after the legislature adjourns.

So the governor is expected to call a special session of the Legislature sometime this summer to consider possible options to finance the recommended improvements. The state’s current gasoline tax as well as increases in the costs of license plates and drivers’ licenses will be possible sources for this new revenue.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said a boost in the state’s gasoline tax shouldn’t be a problem because “I don’t think folks would mind paying a few extra cents to fill up to make sure the roads are maintained.”

Secretary of Transportation Paul Maddox claims West Virginia has the sixth largest network of state roads in the nation but ranks 49th in the amount spent on it. He said West Virginia spent $7,500 a mile last year compared to a nationwide average of $24,000 per mile.

Currently, state road funding comes from three sources in West Virginia. The state’s tax on gasoline is one, a 5 percent tax on new vehicles is the second and the final source is a variety of fees charged by the Department of Motor Vehicles, including annual license plate renewals.

These charges generate about $600 million a year. However, these levels have been flat for several years while the costs of maintenance have increased. Gasoline tax revenue, which are set at a fixed rate per gallon, has dropped as cars have become more fuel-efficient.

Efforts to find ways to provide funding for major highway repairs or expansion in the state are also stagnant. The most recent example is the effort by the 2012 Legislature to find the $187 million needed to expand a 14.6-mile stretch of U.S. 35 — a key east-west truck route — into a four-lane road. Lawmakers failed to come up with that money and the project is now dead.

State Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, suggests the state should try to come up with some kind of a user fee or other broad-based funding source that would require everyone who uses the roads to help pay for their maintenance.

Currently, motorists in West Virginia contribute an average of 81 cents a day to maintain the state highway system. And the average driver uses 852 gallons of gasoline per year, which yields $296 in state gasoline tax revenue. Maddox put the problem in perspective when he said “this insufficient funding level can’t last forever.”

Surrounding states have the same problems. The House of Delegates in neighboring Virginia voted recently to eliminate its gasoline tax and raise the state’s sales tax by 0.8 percent which officials there estimate will generate $3 billion in road funds. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich has asked the Legislature there to pledge toll revenue from the Ohio Turnpike to retiring bonds sold to finance other road projects.

Meanwhile, the proposal by Tomblin that the Legislature come up with a mandatory full-day kindergarten program within the next three years for some 14,000 children who are four years old may not be that easy to accomplish. The idea of a half-day program began a decade ago and the details were left up to each county to work out.

The program became fully implemented in every county this year and about two of every three four year olds in West Virginia are now enrolled in them. The governor’s latest move is obviously partly designed to help households where both parents work and won’t have to worry about daily child care at home.

The cost of the half-day program in 2011 was $82 million or about $5,600 per child. That is substantially more than the national average of $4,296 per child. And another group of children from low-income families are enrolled in the federal Head Start program. But about one-fourth of these youngsters are enrolled in something other than a full-day program.

The 10-year-old effort has just reached its full implementation this year. All 55 counties now offer a public pre-school program that is available to all four year olds. And there is very little evidence that the full day of instruction for them is all that beneficial but researchers on this issue suggest it may merely be because of insufficient evidence so far.

Finally, it’s an ambitious venture by the upper chamber of the Legislature to create a special new committee on Children and Poverty and all the powerful members among the 34 senators are on that panel.

Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley is chairman, and chairmen of the three major committees in the Senate — Finance, Judiciary and Education — are also among the members along with Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam; President Pro Tempore Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel; Majority Whip William R. Laird IV, D-Fayette; and Minority Whip Clark Barnes, R-Randolph.

Last week’s initial meeting revealed some compelling statistics. There are 103,758 children in West Virginia that are four or younger and more than one-fourth of them, or 29, 528, are living in poverty. Even alarming information, more than half the 282,310 children enrolled in public schools during the current school year receive either free or reduced cost lunches. And that doesn’t even include the alarming number of teen pregnancies involving unwed mothers, a sad reality highlighted by one senator who mentioned a 13-year-old who had given birth to her third child.

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