Last week, Gov. Jim Justice told Division of Highways county supervisors and district engineers that he wanted prioritized lists of all the road work necessary, as well as their equipment and personnel needs. As they say, be careful what you ask for.
The DOH officials responded with extensive lists — some neatly organized on spread sheets and others handwritten. (I pity the person at the DOH office with the job of sorting through all of them and turning them into a manageable document.)
But after all, the governor did not specify how he wanted the data. “I don’t care if you scratch ‘em on the back of a paper bag,” Justice said.
Byrd White, Justice’s newly appointed secretary of the Department of Transportation, told MetroNews affiliate WJLS in Beckley, “There’s almost 15,000 tasks that they sent in that they need done.”
To repeat, that’s 15,000.
We know the state’s roads are in deplorable condition and that the state has fallen way behind on routine maintenance and paving, but this is the first time the state has quantified the amount of work that needs done, and it’s massive.
White said DOH must start with the basics. “The first priority is the ditching and mowing and getting things cleaned up and getting them ready to pave,” he said.
That doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but it’s a critical first step. Poor drainage is the enemy of good roads, and the county reports show West Virginia is woefully behind on routine ditch clearing.
“In April, we’ll start paving roads,” White said. “But first we’ve got to get them ready. There’s no point in paving a road that hasn’t been drained and the potholes haven’t been cleaned up.”
The local highway departments also need additional equipment and manpower.
As MetroNews’ Brad McElhinny reported, for example, the North Charleston part of District 1 in Kanawha County had an extensive list: “16 more employees, water truck, wood chipper, two message boards, a bucket truck (one tandem, two single axles), a broom tractor, a paving machine, a gradall excavator, a backhoe and a crew cab.”
Justice said he’s committed to meeting those needs, although it’s not clear yet how much the state is able to spend, how quickly the equipment can be purchased and whether long-vacant positions can be filled.
One county even meticulously noted complaints from motorists. Lisa Matheny called the DOH office to complain about Cow Skin Road.
“Her vehicle is dragging going up the hills, there are ruts and it is rough,” the DOH noted. Benny Crigger told DOH, “His is the last house on Horseshoe Bend Road, the ditches need cleaned out because the water is backing up and running in his garage.”
Now, take those complaints and multiply them by hundreds, perhaps thousands of times and that gives you an idea of not only what the citizens of West Virginia are facing, but also what the DOH is up against.
These lists are likely imperfect, but they are a step toward accountability, and that’s been missing in highways.
Now it’s up to the Justice administration to quickly compile a priority list, find every additional dollar available, get the DOH moving on the road repairs, monitor the progress and — this is important — let people know what’s being done.
West Virginians are understandably angry about the horrible road conditions. They are skeptical of promises; they want to see pavement.
Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.