W. Va. — Why is the West Virginia Division of Highways District 4 saying it doesn’t have enough money for adequate road maintenance when taxpayers just voted to allow $1.6 billion in bond sales for transportation projects?
Because you don’t take out a mortgage to buy the groceries.
That’s how West Virginia Secretary of Transportation Tom Smith summed it up when asked a reoccurring question surrounding road maintenance across the district.
The topic spurred the creation of the North Central Caucus on Roads after the Preston County Commission declared a state of emergency over road conditions there. The caucus is comprised of county commissioners and state office holders from five of the district’s six counties. It held its third meeting this past week, in Fairmont.
Smith explained that using one-time funds to pay for annual expenses is bad business.
“When we’re talking about resurfacing and pothole patching, you don’t really want to be paying for 25 years for material you put in potholes, which has a two or three-year life, and next year you’re patching again,” Smith told The Dominion Post. “So short-term things being taken care of with bonded or borrowed dollars, we just don’t think that’s as good of a philosophy as what we’re doing.”
What the DOH is doing, according to District 4 Engineer Donny Williams, is providing about half of the funds needed to address the district’s maintenance needs.
Williams receives between $30 million and $32 million annually for the district. He told the latest caucus meeting that by his estimation, he would probably need an additional $36 million to $38 million a year to keep the district’s roads maintained to the level prescribed by the DOH’s own core maintenance plans.
That said, Smith explained the passage of the road bond in October has and will result in increased dollars for maintenance, which should be ramping up with the warm weather.
“What we do is have regional projects that are regionally significant and have name recognition to them. We try to borrow money for that,” Smith said. “When we have a large amount of money to build those projects, it frees up the regular program for us to do more of the routine maintenance we’re talking about. So you really do get the best of both when you end up having these big bonding programs.”
Smith also conceded that the state is playing catch-up when it comes to infrastructure across the board.
“We understand this spring has been a hard pothole season. It was actually a brutal winter in terms of road conditions and people are getting impatient, but the truth of it is we’ve really not invested as we should have in our transportation infrastructure for the last 10 years,” Smith said. “We’ve been on a downhill slide, and you can’t instantly turn that around.”
Another reoccurring theme in the road maintenance discussion is the DOH’s ability to attract and keep employees due to non-competitive wages.
Williams has said truck drivers start with the state at $11.77/hour, and the average hourly pay for DOH employees is about $13.94. He told the caucus it’s not uncommon for DOH workers to use social services to make ends meet.
“What we’re trying to do is look at needs job by job. What I mean by that is if you have a particular job category that is really underpaid, to go in and surgically try to address that. We’re not talking about across-the-board types of things,” Smith said, noting regional pay rates may be an option, particularly in places like Monongalia County.
“That’s one thing we’re talking about. So up in your area, the economy in Morgantown is one of the best in the state, if not the best in the state. Well that hurts us as far as our pay and its impact there … That area is one of the hardest hit because of the disparity between pay on the public side and what you can get elsewhere,” Smith said, recalling Morgantown pays laborers $3.23/hour more than the DOH pays truck drivers.
“That really sets the stage to where you can have quite an issue, so yes, we’re looking at that.”
Lastly, a number of questions have been raised about why counties couldn’t take a more active role in road maintenance through House Bill 4009, also known as the “local bill,” which was signed into law in 2016.
The law allows counties to finance a road construction project by adding up to 1 percent to the state’s 6 percent sales tax.
Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom said road maintenance was what was in mind when the bill came out of Monongalia County.
“The county pushed the original bill, and it was for maintenance. It got substituted by the legislature through the state chamber of commerce to go toward new projects,” Bloom said. “We still got it and we were going to consider it until the road bond issue passed.”
Bloom went on to say that even if the law did address maintenance of smaller county roads, it provides a process that includes a formal proposal, public hearings, approval from the secretary of transportation and a referendum that must go before the voters in a primary or general election — a process that he said would likely take between 12 and 18 months.
“Getting the funding to actually meet the needs of our county is going to have to come through the legislature,” Bloom said, adding that talk of the local bill is an attempt to deflect responsibility from state lawmakers. “Any delegate who states that is not giving the full truth to the citizens of Monongalia County and it frustrates me. They need to read their own bill.”