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Justice must deliver on road bond’s expectations

September 19, 2018

Gov. Jim Justice’s Roads to Prosperity plan, approved by voters last year in a special election, has encountered some problems — some that could endanger highway improvements this area needs for future growth.

Most of the funding for the $2.97 billion Roads to Prosperity program comes from three sources. One is the $1.6 billion authorized by voters in a special election late last year. Second is $500 million in what are known as grant anticipation revenue vehicle (GARVEE) bonds, in which the state pledges future federal funding. Third is revenue from an increase in West Virginia Turnpike tolls. That money can be used only in the 10 counties along or near the turnpike.

In the run-up to the election, Justice and the Division of Highways released a list of highway projects that would be built once the state sold the bonds. Among them was rebuilding Interstate 64 in Cabell and Putnam counties. Another was upgrading U.S. 52 between Kenova to Prichard to four lanes.

The I-64 work is underway. Its completion will be an event of great relief to commuters who deal with the traffic restrictions in the work zones daily.

But not all has gone smoothly with projects funded by the road bonds.

Bids for some projects have come in over the original cost estimates. Widening the West Virginia Turnpike near Beckley was estimated to cost $60 million. Only one bid was submitted, and the DoH recently awarded a contract of about $105.7 million for the work. Work on Interstate 70 near Wheeling was originally estimated to cost about $170 million. That estimate was later revised upward to $201 million. When bids were opened, the apparent low bid was for $275 million. All bids were rejected. The project will be revised and put out to bid again later.

If the original cost estimates were that far off for whatever reason, what does that mean for projects that are scheduled to be bid a few years from now? That concerns state Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne.

At a legislative interim committee in Charleston this week, Plymale said he hopes the high bids do not endanger work on U.S. 52, according to an article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The Wayne County work is scheduled to go out to bid in 2020 or 2021.

“When I hear of overruns, I get a little concerned because we’re at the tail-end of these things,” Plymale said, according to the Gazette-Mail.

It’s not just the Heartland Intermodal Gateway in Prichard that would benefit from improved access to Interstate 64 and Tri-State Airport. So, too, would the manufacturing and other businesses in the A. Michael Perry Prichard Industrial Park near the Heartland Gateway.

Modern infrastructure is vital for economic growth. That means roads, water, sewer, electricity, natural gas and high-speed internet, among other things. U.S. 52 from Kenova to Prichard is a good two-lane road, but two more lanes would help the Kenova-to-Prichard corridor grow to its potential.

When they campaigned for the road bond issue last year, Justice and the Division of Highways gave voters in Wayne County and elsewhere the expectation that U.S. 52 would soon be four lanes from Kenova to Prichard. Voters were also told there would be a new I-64 interchange at Culloden and that parts of I-64 in Cabell County would be widened to six lanes.

Unless he wants to poison the well for future bond issues, Justice needs to ensure the state meets the expectations voters had when they went to the polls last year.

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