The governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways got a less than warm reception last week when it presented those in attendance with the issue before West Virginia — a rapidly dilapidating transportation system and no funds to fix it.
To be sure, almost half the respondents of a series of unscientific surveys said they opposed any increase in taxes as a way to pay for new roads and upgrades, while almost 70 percent said the first step should be eliminating waste in the Division of Highways budget. Would that it were so easy.
West Virginia is staring down the face of an annual deficit of between $600 million to $1.3 billion just to keep pace. Much more is needed if West Virginia is ever going to be able to maintain a road system needed to keep its citizens safe and to develop the transportation infrastructure West Virginia will need to attract business investment.
Nothing the Blue Ribbon Commission reports should come as a surprise. A 2004 update to a 1984 West Virginia Tax Study Commission spelled out the challenges peculiar to building and maintaining roads in the Mountain State — it’s got more state-maintained highways than any state in the U.S. (the federal government is responsible for very little of West Virginia’s highways) and they’re among the most costly to build given West Virginia’s terrain and rural character.
On top of that, the state ranked at the bottom in vehicle miles driven per capita and per driver. To make matters worse, the State Road Fund has since the 1980s been the subject of significant diversions of revenue to help pay for special infrastructure projects, initiatives and to other agencies, such as the Department of Public Safety.
Despite hearing loud and clear how unwelcome authorizing new taxes would be, before taking what Berkeley County lawmaker Larry Kump calls a “smorgasbord menu” of potential revenue increases off the table entirely, lawmakers should consider how far existing revenues are going toward keeping the road fund afloat and how new revenues might be raised and existing revenue might be reallocated from other funds.
Yes, taxing and spending are two dirty words but they’re only dirty if you’re not getting anything back from the money you’re taxed and the money you’ve spent.
We should consider what we give and what we get each time we head out on the open road.