CHARLESTON — Representatives of north-central West Virginia counties showed up at the state Capitol with a message about the condition of local roads.
“The members of the North Central Road Caucus are saying enough is enough; we’re having serious problems with the roads,” said Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom. “We need additional funding.”
Official after official stood up to speak during a public forum in the House of Delegates chamber. They described lack of attention to pot-hole riddled roads, making travel treacherous for commuters and school buses, discouraging tourism and economic development.
“Economically, we’re in a crisis situation here,” Bloom said.
Gov. Jim Justice received a standing ovation during his State of the State address as he recognized the problem last week.
The governor praised progress from the road bond that passed last year, but said more resources need to go toward secondary roads.
“We’ve done — I don’t know how many, but it’s hundreds of projects already. Here’s the very thing, though, that we need to do: We’ve got to shift a little bit of the focus — and we have had extensive discussions with the bond holders and everything else, that we can do this,” he said.
“We’ve got to pull some of the money out of the bigger projects and move some of the money — or significantly more money. Not more than all the big projects, but a little bit of additional monies over to fix more of our secondary roads.”
As the Legislature debated raising the gasoline taxes and DMV fees last year to fund the road bond, advocates touted the ability to use bond money to pay for the big new projects while freeing up existing funds for smaller projects and giving more attention to maintenance.
On Tuesday, regional officials who interpreted the governor’s remarks as a proposal to dedicate some road bond money to secondary road work warned against doing so.
“We are totally opposed to using this for maintenance,” said Eldon Callen of the Monongalia County Chamber of Commerce.
“We promised the people it won’t be used for ongoing maintenance. Ongoing maintenance is something your annual budget is supposed to pay for.”
Bloom made the same point.
“Those are new roads. We want to make it very clear: We are adamantly opposed to the governor taking money from the road bond issue.”
Trying to strike a balance will be a challenge for the finance committees in both houses, said Delegate Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, who serves on House Finance.
“We’re not getting enough money filtered back to the secondary roads to fix them,” Longstreth said in an interview after the public forum.
“What we’ll try to do in finance is to reallocate and try to figure out where that money is going and put it back into where it belongs on the secondary roads. We’ve got roads that are caving in, and they’re just blocking off that side of the road.”
Longstreth said she was among those who applauded the governor’s remarks about roads.
“I was the first one to stand up, to be honest, to applaud,” she said.
“That’s what I heard, and I think that’s what everyone heard: that he was going to have to redistribute some of that money for secondary roads. He knows it’s an issue. He knows we don’t have enough money to take care of that issue.”
Longstreth said roads are the most common issue her constituents call about.
“I usually get texts or phone calls saying, ‘Someone needs to come out and do something about this road.’ I would say 99 percent of my constituents — that’s their issue.”
Those who testified in the public forum described frustrations in a variety of ways.
Susan Riddle, of the Greater Morgantown Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the condition of local roads is “a major, major disadvantage to us.”
Sean Sikora, a Monongalia County Commissioner, said, “It is choking off a lot of opportunity in our area.”
Rocco Fucillo, government relations specialist with WVU, said, “The roads in the entire region are not in the shape they need to be in.”
Preston County Commissioner Samantha Stone said she also serves as a substitute bus driver, taking her and young passengers over 1,200 miles of terrain. “It is a very dangerous job.”
State Transportation Commissioner Tom Smith sat in the front and listened.
“Ultimately we think working together and talking is the way to get things done,” Smith said, urging people to continue talking to their legislators. “We know there’s a backlog of needs. We know there are roads needs all over the state.”
House Majority Leader Amy Summers, who led the public forum, said the message was clear to her.
“What they did say is they want more money towards their roads,” Summers, R-Taylor, said in an interview following the forum. “They made it really clear that infrastructure and public safety are one of our government’s priorities and that our budget needs to reflect that.”
Bloom said he has confidence in lawmakers like Summers to propose workable solutions.
“That is what Amy Summers and the others are looking at,” Bloom said, “is where the money should come from.”