WV Highway Division Eyes 1,200 Job Cuts

Tue May 13, 2003 - Northeast Edition
CEG



CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ At least 1,200 jobs will be lost this summer as the Division of Highways cuts $48 million from its state-funded construction program to compensate for increased personnel costs and snow and ice removal overruns.

The job loss could exceed 1,400 as the agency paves fewer roads, replaces fewer bridges and eliminates planned improvements across the state.

”It looks gloomy for this season,’ said Ronald Burdette, business manager for Local 132 of the Operating Engineers. The union’s members operate heavy equipment on construction and paving projects.

This year’s gloomy construction picture has state and industry officials questioning if West Virginia’s highway program should be modified and if tax increases are necessary to keep the system from deteriorating.

The division originally planned to spend $123 million in state funds on bridges, paving, equipment, maintenance and general construction projects. The amount was recently cut to $75 million. Federally funded highway projects aren’t affected.

For every $1 million in construction dollars lost, 25 to 30 jobs are affected, said Randy Epperly, deputy state highway engineer for development. Many jobs pay between $20 and $30 an hour.

”In terms of bread on the table for our employees and our company ... we’re not going to see that money,’ said Dan Cooperrider, general manager for West Virginia Paving.

As the state’s largest paving contractor, West Virginia Paving would normally have 400 seasonal employees at work. Cooper said he did not call back 25 this year.

For the remaining 375, instead of making $30,000 to $35,000 this summer, their earnings will probably be cut to $23,000 to $25,000, he said.

This year’s harsh winter cost the agency millions in unplanned snow and ice removal costs. An additional $6 million must be spent to cover increases in health insurance and benefits for the DOH’s estimated 5,000 employees, said Fred VanKirk, state transportation secretary.

”We’re just going to have to weather the storm here until we can get our bank account back up,’ VanKirk said. ”We’ve scaled back our program to fit our income.’

Problems with state-funded highway projects are not unique to West Virginia.

”The bleeding is huge all over the country,’ said Jennifer Gavin, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C-based American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

However, delaying or cutting maintenance and construction programs eventually increases costs. Rebuilding a road or bridge costs about four times more than routine maintenance.

”We have to maintain what we’ve got,’ VanKirk said. ”If we let it deteriorate, we will never catch up again.’

The division is already playing catch up.

About 39 percent of West Virginia’s 6,821 bridges are either structurally deficit or functionally obsolete, according to

the 2002 National Bridge Inventory prepared by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Also, the pavement on 36 percent of the state’s roadways is considered to be in poor or mediocre condition, said Frank Moretti, with The Road Information Program in Washington, D.C.

Over the past decade, traffic in the state has jumped 23 percent, increasing wear and tear on highways. Because of highway conditions, West Virginians pay, on average, an extra $277 a year to operate their vehicles.

”Lousy roads are good if you are selling cars because your customers will come back to you more quickly,’ Moretti said.

Revenues for state-funded projects have steadily declined, despite a gasoline tax increase approved by the Legislature in 1993. The state charges 25.35 cents per gallon of gas at the pump.

The division’s debt service has increased to $50 million a year. State highway funds used to operate the Division of Motor Vehicles have increased from $19 million in 1996 to $39 million and other programs are siphoning off dollars.

”We’re trying to determine if this is a short-term concern or systematic problems with funding,’ said Mike Clowser with the West Virginia Contractors Association.

”The bottom line is ... the highway industry is concerned about where the program is going on the short term, and it’s looking very closely to see if those problems are going to be long term,’ he said.

Although lawmakers tinkered with a fuel tax this session to raise an extra $10 million, Clowser and others said ”the whole gambit of revenues,’ including vehicle registration fees and the general gasoline tax, must be reviewed.

”You have to have state funds to take care of these roads,’ said Bob Orders Jr., with Orders Construction. ”Eventually and probably we’ll need an additional funding mechanism to do that.’

With federal highway funding legislation up for renewal this year, Congress also is considering ways to help states meet funding shortfalls, Gavin said.

VanKirk said the DOH has hired West Virginia University to review the state’s program. Funding is part of thereview. The report should be finished by December.