MORGANTOWN — There was an air of frustration Thursday, as roughly 50 residents and elected officials from West Virginia Division of Highways’ (DOH) District 4 gathered in a Courtyard Marriott conference room for the latest meeting of the North Central Caucus on Roads.
For many of the elected officials, the frustration stems from months of meetings and little in the way of progress. In fact, the September retirement of former District 4 Engineer Donny Williams appears to have set the process back substantially.
For many residents, like the 20 or so in attendance to express their concerns about the condition of W.Va. 7, west of Morgantown, the frustration stems from being forced to travel what they consider to be dangerous roads every day with no apparent relief in sight.
The residents were not able to speak during the meeting, but some spoke to The Dominion Post afterward.
“There’s all kinds of commerce out there — all kinds of people working out there, and this is one of the worst roads in the state, and I travel all over this state,” county resident Todd Moore said, of W.Va. 7. “You go to these other counties down south, Pendleton, Grant and some of those counties, the roads are perfect. Up here, it’s horrible. And we generate so much revenue for this state. It makes no sense.”
The issues are many, and they’re not new.
According to information previously provided by Williams, District 4 would need an estimated $35 million beyond its annual maintenance funding just to get back to the DOH’s core maintenance standards. Further, there are more than 220 slips district-wide and a budget of only $1.8 million to address them.
“In our county, we have two slips that block off a town, one on each side. Now, the one way left to get into that town has a slip on it,” Preston County Commissioner Don Smith said. “Pretty soon, it’s basically going to be an island. You’re not going to be able to get into it.”
Lastly, even if the additional funding was available to bring the district’s roads up to par, the DOH can’t come close to fielding the manpower needed to complete the work, largely due to non-competitive wages.
Former Preston County Commissioner Craig Jennings said that despite all the issues with the roads in his county and repeated invitations, Transportation Secretary Tom Smith has yet to make an appearance.
“It’s easy to sit in Charleston and say, ‘Man, I feel sorry for you,’ ” Jennings said. “Tom Smith has got to get up here and see some of these issues in Taylor, Preston, Mon counties. He’s got to see it and feel it and be a part of it. There’s no way that anywhere in Charleston or, I guarantee you, Greenbrier County, they’ve had to put up stoplights on both sides of a town because it’s down to a one-lane road.”
“I don’t care how long he’s been in there. I can’t get him to Preston County, and I’ve been trying for three months,” Jennings said of Smith.
There were a number of potential fixes discussed, including possible exemptions that would allow heavy trucks to bypass bridge formula restrictions that force them off large, federal routes and onto smaller, state and local roads.
Additionally, Moore said, road bonding requirements need to be improved so that the routes being impacted by oil and gas trucks and other industry are actually covered.
Lastly, there was a call for a greater dependence on contracted labor to take on the overwhelming amount of work needed in conjunction with an understaffed DOH.
The meeting broke up with an understanding that state representatives will try to arrange a public hearing with Smith in Charleston. At that meeting, tentatively scheduled for the 15th, resolutions passed by each of the counties will be presented.
“I’d love to see folks from WVU come to that meeting. I’d like to see the chamber of commerce maybe get a bus and bus people down to it,” Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom said. “We need to be heard.”
The North Central Roads Caucus was formed by the six counties in District 4 — Preston, Monongalia, Marion, Doddridge, Taylor and Harrison — after Preston County declared a state of emergency in April due to the condition of its roads.