CHARLESTON — Whoever takes the helm of West Virginia’s Department of Highways will inherit challenges that extend beyond the top of the organization.
Gov. Jim Justice fired Transportation Secretary Tom Smith this week, promising adjusted priorities.
“Was he to blame for all this?” asked Senator Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, chairman of the Senate’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “The captain of the ship is the one responsible for the ship, but I think the real problem is down below the level.”
Governor Justice called Smith a “superstar” less than two years ago when West Virginia voters passed a statewide, $2.6 billion road bond.
The road bond’s spotlight was on construction of marquee roads and bridges, with state officials saying that would free up additional money to improve secondary roads.
But complaints started to mount about the condition of secondary roads. By Sunday evening, Justice put out a statement saying a change at the top is necessary.
“I want a new direction to be taken with our Department of Transportation, a return to the core mission of maintaining the quality of our secondary roads and bridges,” Justice stated.
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But the root problems extend far beyond the agency chief.
Of all 10 Department of Highways districts in the state, none consistently spent the goal of 70 percent on core maintenance. That’s according to a February audit by the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division.
“Although non-core maintenance consists of important activities such as pavement marking, open drainage systems and bridge repair, core maintenance consists of mowing, patching, ditching and snow removal, which are essential for day-to-day use of roads,” the audit concluded.
The study period wasn’t just recent. It went back to 2012.
District 10, consisting of Raleigh, Wyoming, Mercer and McDowell counties, hit the goal in 2013 and 2014. That’s it.
Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom describes the roads in his region as a disaster.
“Where has the governor been on this issue? We still haven’t gotten a plan. There wasn’t even a highways bill sent from the governor,” Bloom said. “I’m very concerned. I’m very frustrated. This should not be a political issue. This should be a health and safety issue.
“Rather than get rid of somebody, why did you not develop a plan for the roads to get fixed, identify them and develop a checklist for each county?”
The highways audit cited several factors in the deterioration of West Virginia’s roads. Those issues are, largely, beyond the powers of the transportation secretary:
Intense weather, such as the catastrophic flooding of 2016, may cause demands to change. Resources may be diverted from core maintenance.
The weather also plays a role in worsening road conditions.
Several parts of the state broke records for rainfall last year. Charleston, for example, experienced 66.56 inches of rain.
“We’ve been through the worst year for roads possible, as far as rain,” Clements said.
Staffing problems plagued Districts 4 and 5 — the region surrounding Morgantown and the Eastern Panhandle. Those areas lacked half of the labor quota required to keep up the system, according to the legislative audit.
“This lack of labor might be due to competition from other state and federal highway agencies,” the audit concluded. “The gist of this issue is that the core/non-core percentages might be skewed because monies couldn’t effectively be used for the specific purposes due to lack of labor.
Clements sees a related issue. The natural gas industry in his area is so active that engineers and construction workers don’t have to look far for work.
“We have trouble keeping employees because the gas company just hires them right off the street,” he said.
“We’re in competition for state employees with all these other companies. They’re going to hire away these engineers. They’re going to hire away these good workers. The state doesn’t pay these people enough to stay competitive.”
If a worker sees a sign for job at a highways garage and there’s another for a natural gas operation, Clements said, “I can go to work to them tomorrow under the same circumstances.”
Bloom would like some incentives for the highways workforce.
“What about developing a plan – the West Virginia DOH temporary workforce. What about using the contractors who don’t work in the wintertime as laborers and get them working?” he said.
Natural gas effects
Another effect of the natural gas industry has been trucks’ wear and tear on West Virginia roads.
“The increase in truck traffic caused plausible wear and tear on the road system, which might have moved resources toward non-core activities, away from core activities,” the audit concluded.
Clements sees this too.
“They’re running these big trucks. It’s over 24,000 vehicles a day,” he said.
Bloom wants incentives to get those trucks off the back roads and onto the main highways.
“Why are we not pushing to increase the weight limits on the interstates and federal bridges so we can get the trucks off the secondary roads?” he asked.
A Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, reporting four years ago, said an influx of $750 million a year was necessary to preserve West Virginia’s roads.
“Without a significant infusion of new funding, the quality level of the highway system will continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate and lead quickly to a very unsatisfactory level of service,” the report concluded.
In a written response to the recent legislative audit, then-Secretary Smith cited that conclusion.
“It is important to understand this as the context for WV’s existing level of service and challenges with highway maintenance,” he wrote. “There is a significant backlog of work that needs to be done… this backlogged work can pull dollars away from the core maintenance activities.”
Whoever gets West Virginia’s top highways job next has real challenges ahead.
Bloom said there’s a bright spot.
“It’s so bad now,” he said, “it can’t get any worse.”