Justice, DOH unveil new roads initiative, website

CHARLESTON — The state Transportation Secretary wouldn’t speculate on whether expensive bids on a  “Roads to Prosperity” project on Interstate 70 in Wheeling are an indication the highway program may have to scale back ensuing projects.

“What I’m saying is if things cost more, we’ll have to adjust the budget an act accordingly,” Tom Smith said Monday.

The state initially expected the I-70 project — which includes several bridges — to cost $170 million, but enhancements led to bids reaching $100 million more.

Smith’s comments came after Gov. Jim Justice staged a news conference at the state capitol.

Smith fielded questions about the I-70 bidding and didn’t rule out a possible rejection of the bids.

“We’re looking at those bids to decide how we feel about them face to face with those rapidly changing market conditions,” Smith said. “We know we have to get that work done, and we will find a way to get it done. We haven’t made a full decision yet on what to do with those bids.”

House of Delegates Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, had a letter hand-delivered to the governor’s office before the news conference expressing concern about the I-70 bids and the possibility of cost overruns becoming a trend for the new “Roads to Prosperity” highways program, a $2.8 billion package approved by voters in October 2017.

“I sincerely hope that the public was not misled on the costs and the number of the projects that the state will be able under the Roads to Prosperity program,” Miley wrote. “If the project costs were underestimated to make it appear that more projects would be included in the Roads to Prosperity program than what you knew to be accurate, I believe that you and your administration should be held accountable for either intentionally, or negligently, deceiving the public simply to elicit support.”

Unveiling two new Department of Transportation initiatives, Justice said the Drive Forward WV website will give residents detailed information about projects in the “Roads to Prosperity” program.

“You’ll be able to go to it and monitor everything that’s going on,” Justice said.

The website lists costs and schedules.

Justice also announced the formation of the Highways Response Team called Safety With Action Today (SWAT). It will allow residents  to report road problems to the Division of Highways (DOH) with responses delivered back within a week.

The public alerts are crucial, Justice said, to maximizing DOH repairs.

“As much as we would like to be able to inspect every foot of every road, the best inspectors we have are you,” Justice said.

Residents can file a report by calling 1-833-WV-ROADS or by completing a form online at http://transportation.wv.gov/wvroads or by emailing wvroads@wv.gov.

“The transparency and responsiveness is wonderful with both of these initiatives,” Smith said.

Smith said it’s too early to tell how costs will impact the program.

“This is a multi-year endeavor. President Trump’s initiative on infrastructure may help us there, too. If we have prices that go up or things that go in favor, we’ll try to balance things to get the maximum amount of work done that we can,” he said.

Construction inflation increased in the last year by 8.8 percent, Smith said, and the new Trump administration tariffs  impacted steel prices. But  the  market  reacted favorably to the West Virginia bonds, purchasing them at a premium level. A recent expected $800 million bond sale turned into $900 million because of the interest by purchasers, Smith said.

The state currently has $1.2 billion banked  for road  and bridge projects and $300 million in contracts already being executed.

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