At last, secondary roads to get attention

March 18, 2019

“Fix the damn roads,” he says.

Now that he is finished coaching high school basketball for another season, Gov. Jim Justice is back in Charleston ready to take on the task of finding ways to repair West Virginia’s rapidly deteriorating system of secondary roads.

The system’s needs are many. In many places, potholes and patches cover more space than the original pavement. Roads on or near the edge of hills are dipping or slipping thanks to abnormally wet weather these past few months. Cars are wearing out faster than they should because the roads are so rough.

Wednesday morning, Justice unveiled his plan to “fix the damn roads.” He began the process Sunday afternoon when he fired Tom Smith, who had been his secretary of transportation, and replaced him with Byrd White, who has worked for Justice in several private-sector enterprises.

Justice had hired Smith to guide the Roads to Prosperity program. That program involves selling billions of dollars of bonds to fund new construction or repair of major roads in the state. Voters overwhelmingly approved the bond issue in late 2017.

Now, with people all over the state complaining about the condition of back roads, Justice sees the need to take care of the lesser-traveled but just as important roads, too.

“I think we just need to refocus our highways department. That’s the whole issue ” Justice said.

Justice laid out a three-part plan to address the needs of secondary roads.

One is to use a small portion of bond funds for maintenance, but not enough to jeopardize any of the projects included in the Roads to Prosperity program. Some projects may be reduced in scope, but they will not be eliminated, Justice said.

Justice also plans to increase secondary road maintenance by expanding the use of funds that eventually will be used to pay down bond debt. He also plans to hire hundreds of temporary workers to offset manpower shortages in the Division of Highways and to purchase heavy equipment that will be needed for maintenance.

The governor said asking the Legislature for a tax increase to pay for secondary road work is not in his plan.

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

Whether Justice’s plan works remains to be seen. His hiring of White, who is not an engineer, to replace Smith, who is, has been criticized, but maybe the Division of Highways does need a new kind of leadership to get this job done. White will not have a long window to prove himself, so things will have to move quickly.

This process will require patience, transparency and public outreach. The state should let the public know as soon as possible which roads will be worked on this year and which ones will have to wait until 2020 or later. Also, the Division of Highways should let the public know how that list was determined. If there is a two-, three-or five-year plan to bring the secondary road system to where it should be, that should be put out in the open as soon as possible, too.

Openness requires actively working to keep the public informed and involved, not putting a plan on a hard-to-read grid on a hard-to-find website.

A final note: Justice took a few minutes Wednesday to criticize former governors Joe Manchin and Earl Ray Tomblin, whose decisions Justice said led to the roads* problems. There was no need to do that unless Justice was doing battlespace prep for next year’s election. The governor would do well for now to pay attention to the task at hand and not worry about next year.

In other words, Governor, just fix the damn roads.