KEARNEYSVILLE – West Virginia roads and bridges are in bad shape and there is little money to repair them.
[cleeng_content id="890875421" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]That was the message Mark Baldwin, the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways representative for the Second Congressional District gave a gathering of residents and area lawmakers last week at the Comfort Inn and Suites as part of a statewide effort to test public reaction to a number of proposals aimed at shoring up the state’s highway fund.
Baldwin said a variety of technological and macroeconomic changes, including vehicle fuel efficiency resulting in less gas tax revenue, along with increasing construction costs and inflation have depleted the road fund of a great deal of value, leaving it insufficient to even maintain the state’s existing roads.
Proposals include increasing the gas tax, increasing drivers license and registration fees, increasing the vehicle tax, taxing alternative fuel vehicles, dedicating sales taxes from automobile-related sales to the road fund, increasing sales taxes and dedicating new revenue, cutting the administrative budget for the Division of Highways and increasing reliance on toll roads.
Balwin said failure to find a way to increase funding for the state’s roads could mean a moratorium on new road construction, falling behind on road maintenance or the ability to repair and replace aging bridges.
Several conservative lawmakers said they would not support tax increases.
Berkeley County Delegate John Overington said the state faces inflated construction costs due to the way the prevailing wage, which is mandated by federal law to be paid to private contractors working on government construction contracts, is calculated by the state Bureau of Labor.
“It is great if you are working, but if you are a taxpayer, you are not getting the best value for your tax dollars,” said Overington, who pointed out that, in Berkeley County, a flagger working on highway construction must be paid a total of $38.56 per hour in wages and benefits. A painter, he said, must be paid $43.75.
“It is big labor’s influence on the political process,” he said. “When we build a road, we are paying for 10 miles, but we only get seven.”
Delegate Larry Kump, of Berkelely County, lamented that tax increases were on the table immediately following abolition of the food tax.
“It truly is troubling that one of the first agenda issues of our government leadership is to parade a smorgasbord menu of ways for more taxing and spending, followed by an anticipated special session of the Legislature, to consider putting tax increases into law,” he said.
Morgan County Delegate Daryl Cowles said money to shore up the road fund could be found within the existing budget.
“I think the citizens that I represent, and the feeling I get, is they would prefer you find the money in the confines of the budget today. Transfer the money. Cut waste,” he said.
Delegate Paul Espinosa, of Jefferson County, proposed altering the way the state funds road systems. He proposed eliminating the dedicated revenue stream-based system which funds roads based on the revenue from specific taxes, and transferring road funding into the general budget.
“Currently, you have designated revenue streams for road construction and road maintenance,” Espinosa said. “I think that most people would agree that those revenue streams are not sufficient in order to meet the construction and maintenance needs in the state.”
“When the cost of fuel goes up, drivers typically drive less and the fuel tax revenue goes down. That, by its very nature, is going to be a very unstable revenue source,” he said. “We need to not rely on these revenue streams that seem to be very unreliable.
“We need to determine through discussion and debate what the funding is, and then set the level of funding through general revenue,” Espinosa said. “If we feel strongly that quality highways need additional funding, I think we need to make it part of the general revenue budget. We need to set it as a priority, just as we do with education.”
Jefferson County Delegate Stephen Skinner dismissed many of the statements by his Republican colleagues as bluster.
“I think that there are hard choices to be made, and we didn’t hear any real solutions here today,” Skinner said. “Roads don’t get built with magic fairy dust. It does cost actual money to build roads.”
“Nobody wants to raise taxes, but everybody wants better roads,” he said. “There is no question that we are going to have to look at our financial structure in West Virginia to figure out how we are going to afford more money than we spend right now.”
Skinner argued against reducing the wages of workers on public projects.
“I’m tired of hearing an attack on working people,” he said. “Do we want to go from people making a living wage to contractors that pay a minimum wage? What kind of society do we want to live in, where people who are doing some of the hardest work can’t afford to live in Jefferson County?”
Skinner said solving the state’s tax structure for funding highways presents a number of difficult problems that will have to be resolved.
“We have disparate taxes with our border states,” he said. “So, for example, Virginia has a lower gas tax than we do, but a lot of their funding comes from property taxes. We have an enormously lower real property tax in West Virginia than they do in Virginia, but we have higher gas taxes. That causes anomalies, some of which punish us.”
“I really do think that we need to look at that,” he said, adding that he does not support a property tax hike.[/cleeng_content]