Federal Highway Trust Fund Cash Dwindles for W. Va.

Federal cash for building and fixing West Virginia roads has diminished at more than twice the five-year national rate.

Tue March 10, 2015 - Northeast Edition
Jonathan Mattise - ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) Federal cash for building and fixing West Virginia roads has diminished at more than twice the five-year national rate — a key factor as a governor-appointed panel considers ways to find another $1 billion-plus for the state’s ailing highways and bridges.

Figures compiled by The Associated Press show the total amount of money available to states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund has declined 3.5 percent during the five-year period ending in 2013, the latest year for which numbers were available.

West Virginia’s allocation fell by 9.1 percent over that period — or 16 percent when adjusted for inflation — putting the Mountain State down $43.3 million in 2013 compared to 2008.

In terms of percentage drop, it’s the fifth biggest overall in the nation.

The state received almost $432 million from the federal trust fund in 2013, part of about $1.3 billion total spent on West Virginia highways.

Over that span, the amount of inflation-adjusted federal highway money fell in every state but Alaska and New York.

In West Virginia, the state Department of Transportation has operated under essentially the same budget for about 15 years, spokesman Brent Walker said. For a small state, West Virginia Division of Highways is responsible for the sixth-largest state-maintained highway system in the country.

In September 2013, the Democratic governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways offered some early recommendations, including raising West Virginia Turnpike tolls for the next 30 years to generate between $600 million and $1 billion. By selling bonds, the state could use those revenues immediately.

Tolls on the 88-mi. turnpike are scheduled to come off in 2019, but the commission recommended that the state keep the tollbooths intact and use the revenue to pay back the road bonds. Turnpike drivers currently pay $2 at each booth, but that could more than double. Five-axle trucks currently pay $6.75.

Tomblin himself wasn’t thrilled at the bond idea. Nor does his upcoming budget proposal include tax, fee or toll increases.

“The governor supports leaving the current tolls on the WV Turnpike but not expanding or raising tolls,’’ said Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman.

The state tax on fuel, for instance, produced $409 million of the $724 million in state money in West Virginia’s road fund in 2013.

Many fees at the DMV that fund road work haven’t changed in decades.

The 5 percent sales tax on vehicles, for instance, produced $174 million in 2013, and the tax rate hasn’t changed since 1971. Registration fees, with $28.50 of the $30 price fueling the Road Fund, haven’t budged since 1976.

Tax increases have even less of a shot with Republicans in charge of the Legislature for the first time in more than eight decades.

Some GOP members have even floated proposals to drop the turnpike tolls for good, prompting a warning from Tomblin.

Tomblin’s administration has stressed that 87 percent of the tolls paid are from out-of-state traffic or West Virginia commercial vehicles.

“When highway funding is hard to come by, eliminating more than $85 million [a year] in dedicated revenues to maintain our state’s highways is irresponsible,’’ Tomblin said in his state-of-the-state address in January.

Since a September 2013 meeting, much hasn’t transpired from the governor’s highway commission. A final report still hasn’t been released.

“The state spent money to do this report, and it’s not forthcoming,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.

Republicans have a handful of other transportation ideas. The bill that has moved the most quickly would spend up to $500,000 auditing the Division of Highways. The House and Senate have passed similar audit bills.

“We don’t want to start directing more funding into particular areas of the highway fund until we know exactly where we can be more efficient with the money that we have,’’ said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

Another bill would authorize $500 million in bonds to build the long-awaited King Coal Highway, but only after the turnpike drops its tolls. Another proposal would look into private naming rights for roads, highways and bridges. Those measures haven’t moved yet.

Related: Pennsylvania Flush With Cash for Transportation Projects