WV governor vows to fix roads

March 15, 2019

CHARLESTON — Vowing to “fix the damn roads” after years of neglect, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice unveiled in broad terms Wednesday a three-pronged plan to increase funding for secondary road maintenance.

That includes diverting some Roads to Prosperity road bond money by scaling back some projects, using pay-as-you-go funds and committing future budget surpluses to road repair.

“I think we just need to refocus our Highways Department. That’s the whole issue,” Justice said during a nearly hourlong announcement.

He also introduced Byrd White, who has worked for Justice in various private-sector capacities, most recently as manager of the now-defunct Black Knight Country Club, in Beckley, as his acting Secretary of Transportation.

White, who currently is a special assistant to the state Tax Commissioner and is a Raleigh County commissioner, replaces Tom Smith, whom Justice fired Sunday.

“Tom Smith is a good man,” Justice said Wednesday. “Tom Smith’s done a good job, but we do have a differentiation of philosophy.”

Justice said Smith, who had a 37-year career at the Federal Highways Administration before joining the Justice administration, is “attuned to doing big projects.”

Smith, who has not given interviews since his firing, apparently objected to Justice’s plan to divert a portion of what ultimately will be $1.6 billion of general obligation road bonds for secondary road maintenance.

On Wednesday, Justice and Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy explained plans to use a small portion of bond funds for maintenance, a proposal they said will not eliminate any Roads to Prosperity projects, but will require scaling back some projects.

“We want to go through as best we can and do every one of the projects, but skinny them down,” Justice said, adding

that the state obviously cannot divert a large amount of bond funds and still complete all the proposed road construction projects.

Justice said many of the road project bids that have come in over budget were the result of engineers expanding the original scope of those projects.

“We were going to repair a bridge, and then what’s happening is, now we’re paving 82 miles of four-lane up to the bridge, and building three convenience stores and everything else along the way,” Justice said, using a hypothetical example.

Hardy said bond covenants also limit what maintenance projects can be funded, since bond-funded projects have to have an expected lifespan of at least 15 years, while a typical road resurfacing is projected to last between seven and 12 years.

Hardy said the state raised $913 million in its first round of road bond sales, but only $236 million of that amount is currently committed to road construction projects.

Justice also plans to expand use of funds that eventually will go to pay down future road bond debt for secondary maintenance, a practice known as “pay-go” for short, and to commit future budget surpluses.

Although there were no precise numbers at Wednesday’s announcement, Justice threw out the figure of $240 million for secondary road maintenance.

“If that’s the case, we’ve got $240 million, and we can do a whole lot of work,” he said of using the three funding sources.

In 2015, after 20 months of study, the state Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways concluded that the state needed to be spending an additional $750 million a year to adequately maintain state roads.

Justice on Wednesday ruled out raising taxes to close that funding gap.

“We’re not going to raise taxes,” he said. “We’re not going to do that on my watch.”

Justice’s plan also calls for hiring hundreds of temporary workers to address manpower shortages in the Division of Highways, and to purchase heavy construction equipment that was sold off under the Manchin administration.

Justice on Wednesday blamed his predecessors, Earl Ray Tomblin and Joe Manchin, for methodically short-changing road funding, which has led to what Justice called “the mother lode of all dog messes.”

Using his typical homespun analogies, Justice said of shifting Highways’ focus from major road construction to secondary road maintenance: “Our situation here is, Edith, who’s setting up on Hoo Hoo Hollow, doesn’t really care a whole heck of a lot about us spending $300 million repairing or building a new bridge on the interstate. She just cares about how she can get to the convenience store.”

Also, in expressing the need to move forward on the secondary road maintenance plan, even with many of the details unresolved, Justice quoted his father as saying, “I don’t know what the right answer is here, but I know this damn well ain’t it.”

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, who sponsored legislation to divert $110 million a year of general revenue funds to road repair over two years — a bill that ultimately passed the Legislature, but with the funding stripped out (Senate Bill 522) — attended the announcement.

Reach Phil Kabler at phllk@wvgazettemall.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.