By Brian Farkas
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
CHARLESTON, WV (AP) West Virginia’s highway system is on the verge of a crisis and a group formed Aug. 22 wants the public to know.
“Without our citizenry thinking it’s important … the hard steps to solve the problem most likely won’t be taken,” said Joe Deneault, chairman of West Virginians for Better Transportation. The group represents 50 organizations involved in construction, economic development and government.
Funding shortages, increased traffic and aging roadways are taking their toll on the state’s 37,000 mi. of state-maintained roadway, said Deneault, a former state engineer of the Division of Highways (DOH).
“If we don’t address the problems now … we will be overwhelmed.”
According to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit transportation research group The Road Information Program, the problems include:
• Twenty-seven percent of the state’s major roads are in poor to mediocre condition.
• Thirty-seven percent of the state’s 6,343 bridges are deficient or obsolete.
• Sixty-three percent of the state’s 549 mi. of interstate highway will need significant repair by 2026.
And, the money to address those needs is shrinking.
The Division of Highways relies heavily on federal dollars. The state’s share comes mainly from privilege and gasoline taxes and registration fees.
When taking inflation into account, state collections peaked in 1994 at $609 million. Funding fell to $460 million last year, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The DOH also is facing a $35-million cutback in federal funding and a potential $55- million cut in state funding next August if a nickel gas tax increase is not reauthorized. Lawmakers increased the tax in the early 1990s during former Gov. Gaston Caperton’s administration.
“I’m excited there’s a group out there that is going to attempt to educate the public,” said state Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox. “Let the public debate and decide what level of highway program they want to fund.”
The DOH maintains 94 percent of the state’s roads, making it the sixth largest state in terms of miles of highway maintained. Federal funds can only be used on 10,300 mi., Mattox said. That’s slightly more than a fourth of the state road system.
At one time, the agency had identified 170 priority projects that would cost more than $20 billion to complete.
Since the state only has approximately $50 million a year to put toward highway construction, the 170-project list would take more than 300 years to complete, Mattox said.
A legislative interim committee is reviewing highway funding and may make recommendations to the Legislature for the 2007 Regular Session.
Deneault said his group’s intention is not to recommend a solution, lobby lawmakers or recommend which projects should be funded.
Its purpose is to educate the public so individuals can talk to their legislative representatives and policymakers about setting priorities. The group kicked off its “Keep West Virginia Moving” campaign that features a Web site with information about the highway system and its needs.
“We’re not saying there is a particular solution that needs to be supplied,” Deneault said.
Ultimately, governors, legislators and the public will have to decide what type of highway system they want and at what price, he said.