Senate Transportation begins tweaking Road Fund formula bill

CHARLESTON — The Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee began work on Tuesday on a House bill requiring the Division of Highways to develop and apply a formula to equitably distribute road funds among the districts and counties.

Jacob Baumgartner, from the Division of Highways, answers questions about the road funding bill.

Some issues with deadline dates in the bill caused some senators to worry that DOH couldn’t complete its assignment on time, so they set it aside for a day to tweak it and make it more workable.

The bill originated from the Monongalia County delegation, with Delegate John Williams, D, as lead sponsor.

As it came over from the House, the bill required the DOH formula to factor in population growth, road miles and their conditions, lane miles, vehicle miles traveled, heavy truck miles traveled, and the number of bridges and their conditions.

DOH has a formulain place, but it’s internal and not established in code. The bill requires DOH to codify its new formula in the form of a legislative rule subject to legislative approval.

A committee amendment proposes to take population growth out of the bill. Chair Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, said it was removed because there are stretches of roads in need that don’t pass through high-population areas, such as U.S. 50 between Clarksburg and Parkersburg.

Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, objected, saying cutting that provision fails to factor in growth areas such as Mon County, which Clements represents.

Williams and co-sponsor Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, previously told The Dominion Post that while the DOH has claimed it uses a distribution formula, audit reports and witness testimony indicate it hasn’t.

This means, they said, DOH hasn’t accounted for changes in county populations and traffic loads. While Mon and other north-central counties have grown, others have shrunk, so the allotments aren’t proportional to need.

Deputy State Highway Engineer Greg Bailey previously told delegates that DOH hasn’t updated its formula since 2005 and has been basing its allotments on outdated figures.

Those need to be updated, he said. They’ve just completed recalculations, but he doesn’t know when they’ll be applied. DOH has already submitted its Fiscal Year 2020 budget, so updated allotments could be a year or two away.

Apart from the population issue, the chief sticking point Tuesday was the dates in the bill. It calls for DOH to prepare to a public comment period on its proposed new rule to begin Oct. 1 and run for six weeks.

Clements said that this deadline would mean DOH would have to have its rule written by July 26 in order to come before the interim Legislative Rule Making Review Committee.

Beach said that seems too tight to accomplish.

Jacob Baumgartner, DOH Maintenance Division director, said they have much of the data they need already for their current formula, but agreed July 26 might be too tight.

Baumgartner commented that DOH’s main problem might be redistributing the money under the new formula. It won’t a bigger pie, just different slices. “There’s going to be winners and losers.”

Often, he said, the winner will be winning at the expense of an adjacent county. “I forsee that not being overly popular.”

Clements questioned whether postponing the deadline until October 2021 might work better. Beach said that would take care of the problem but would anger state residents dealing daily with bad roads.

Members are looking to resume work on an improved bill on Wednesday morning.

Members did approve a House bridge naming resolution, HCR 11. It would name the Thornton Bridge, carrying U.S. 50 over Three Fork Creek and CSX Railroad in Taylor County as the U. S. Army Command Sergeant Major Timothy Allen Bolyard Memorial Bridge.

Bolyard was born in Morgantown in 1976, graduated from Grafton High School in 1994 and joined the Army, and was killed in the line of duty in Logar Provence, Afghanistan, in 2018.

It heads to the Senate floor.

The committee also approved a version of a House license plate bill that packages three bills together.

HB 2846 began as a bill adding a “Back the Blue” specialty license plate to support an honor law enforcement officers.

Committee counsel added in two other licensee bills affecting the same section of code. One is HB 2472, for special beekeeper pollinator plates.

The other is SB 542. It proposes to allow a military veteran or member who qualifies for a military plate exempt from registration fees to obtain instead a military plate subject to the fees without paying the fees.

Twelve police offers attended this part of the meeting and were asked to stand and receive in recognition for their service.

The bill goes to the Senate floor.

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