BRUCETON MILLS — Division of Highways District 4 Engineer Don Williams faced a tough crowd Tuesday night at the Bruceton Senior Center.
The meeting, called by the North Preston Area Watch group was “about our terrible roads,” said NPAW’s Jeannie Walsh, Williams explained that District 4 is understaffed because of competition from the oil and gas industry, that even fast-food restaurants in Morgantown pay better. He noted the limitations of the district’s budget, which is funded by gas taxes and DMV fees.
He put forth his proposal to hire private contractors to maintain primary roads and noted the recent announcement of $1.8 million for District 4 this fall and the same in the spring to do purchase-order paving.
But after filling sheet after sheet with their lists of roads that needed work — pothole repair, ditching, paving, gravel — the crowd had questions.
“How did we get here?” asked one man, referring to road conditions. It has been coming to this over years, Williams said, as personnel and funding was cut.
Blaine Bowmar, who works in Preston County DOH, said when he started in 1979, Preston County had 120 workers. Now it is budgeted for 53 and is 14 below that quota.
Another resident pressed for minutes of the meetings where road work was prioritized and Williams’ list of those prioritized roads and projected dates of the work. Williams said he doesn’t release the list because if there was a delay, people would start pushing.
After being asked repeatedly, Williams said he would speak to the state transportation secretary about whether he thinks the information should be released. He told the questioner to send a Freedom of Information Act request for that and budgets that he requested.
An audience member noted that the roads in this area were not built for the traffic they carry. Another asked why the DOH doesn’t use the milled asphalt taken from highways to fill in on other roads.
Williams said when the project is a federal road, the DOH is prohibited by law from doing so. In any job, the milled material belongs to the contractor, who usually sells it but will sometimes let the DOH have it in non-federal jobs.
Williams pointed to the work on Interstate 79 north of Morgantown, which is a warranty job. The contractor must remove all the road and provide a nine-year warranty on the work. The milled material is being sold by the contractor for $250 a truckload, the engineer said.
Another resident asked why “convict” labor couldn’t be used on the roads? Williams said the biggest problem is drugs. Inmates’ girlfriends, for example, will plant drugs along highways where the crews will be working.
A deal was made with Pruntytown Correctional Center, which would supply three crews of 12 people each to pick up trash, shovel asphalt and do weed eating. Eighty-five prisoners were approved for the work. But the prison industry only has two guards to watch them, so the program can’t do much, Williams said.
As for using county community corrections people on the roads, he said he would be willing to consider it.
The amount of work available also led to higher bids on jobs, Williams said. For example, only one contractor bid to replace sidewalks and add ramps to make them handicapped accessible in Terra Alta. The bid was 900 percent over estimate, so it was rejected.
Next year, the sidewalk and paving of W.Va. 7 in Terra Alta will be combined as a single contract, with hopes that will bring a more reasonable rate.
In response to criticism of how work is done, Williams said it’s a choice between, “Do you pave two miles right or do you pave and fix nine miles?”
“It’s like putting lipstick on a pig,” one attendee said.