The road we can’t afford to stay on
It’s tempting to wonder if state GOP lawmakers would only be satisfied once West Virginia is crisscrossed by a network of deer and Indian trails, such an anathema to them is the suggestion that more public funding might be needed for the state to maintain the upkeep on its more than 38,000 miles of highways and byways.
Indeed, whether it be the suggestion by area lawmaker Larry Kump that the work recently completed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s 31-member Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways amounted to nothing more than a “dog and pony show” or the most recent accusation, this by Mercer County Delegate Marty Gearhart, that the commission’s recommendations — to increase Department of Motor Vehicle fees to raise $77 million, add an annual $200 registration fee for alternative fuel vehicles, shift $25 million in sales tax revenue to the state road fund and float a $1 billion bond to be paid off by continuing to collect tolls on 88 miles of the West Virginia Turnpike — are a “colossal failure” in support of a “contrived crisis” to “heap additional costs on the backs of West Virginians,” Republicans appear only too quick to critique the work of the commission but remain notably slow in offering any alternatives, save for repeating that tired old saw about eliminating inefficiencies.
Shaving $100 million from personnel costs might grant the Division of Highways enough to patch up some bridges — according to the Federal Highway Administration, 13 percent, or nearly 1,000, of the state’s bridges rate as “structurally deficient,” — but it hardly serves as a long-term plan for resolving what has been a decade-long operational inability to maintain and repair our underperforming roads system.
Besides, these lawmakers’ protests that there is no support for raising additional funds for road improvements don’t have the ring of truth to them. According to Blue Ribbon Highways Commission Chairman Jason Pizatella, “significant” public support” exists for continuing tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike beyond 2019 when they are slated to be eliminated. As Pizatella notes, about 75 percent of the traffic on the turnpike is from out-of-state vehicles, meaning West Virginia residents would largely get a pass if repayment of the bond was funded with higher tolls.
But, as Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall noted, if efforts to secure more road funding or the commission’s recommendations don’t survive the Legislature, the blame is not just the minority party’s. In 2011, a special election year, Gov. Tomblin couldn’t bring himself to tell West Virginians their roads and bridges were fast deteriorating and vetoed a bill passed with great support among lawmakers of both houses that would have raised more than $40 million in increased motor vehicle fees, which remain one of the few mechanisms the Division of Highways has for funding improvements. Tomblin’s also on record in support of ending the turnpike toll, which might explain his wishy-washiness on the commission’s recommendations.
To be sure, Republican lawmakers have tapped a vein of discontent, that being the suspicion that government has grown fat on the backs of its own citizens. Couple the distrust with government with what historian Bruce Seely has called a growing trend toward the politicization of transportation spending, a skeptical attitude toward technical expertise and stagnant household wealth and it should be no surprise that politicians and policymakers can’t muster the stomach to lecture the rest of us on such notions as the “common good.”
Coming off the worst economic crisis of a generation, West Virginians are hardly prepared to be told they need to pony up more money for infrastructural upkeep that has too long lain neglected. But these same lawmakers do a great disservice to the very folks who voted them into office if they think doing nothing more than fomenting suspicion and distrust qualifies as public service.