CHARLESTON, W.Va. —West Virginia could complete 19 shelved road and bridge projects all around the state if voters approve a bond amendment to borrow $1 billion, Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox told legislators Thursday.
Addressing a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees, Mattox said the list includes sections of U.S. 35 in Mason County, the Coalfields Expressway in Wyoming County, the King Coal Highway in Mercer County, and the Tolsia Highway in Wayne County. Mattox said the delayed projects also include a new Ohio River bridge at Wellsburg, finishing a segment of Meadowbrook Road in Harrison County and completing a Berkeley Springs bypass in Morgan County.
“Expediting these projects will create more highway construction jobs, strengthen our economy and allow the opportunity for economic development adjacent to these projects,” Mattox told lawmakers. “It’s an investment, or it would be an investment.”
Mattox added that a $1.5 billion road bond amendment would fund those projects as well as finish Corridor H in eight years. Work on that highway to connect Interstate 79 to Virginia has started and stopped over the last several decades. Officials currently don’t expect to finish it until 2035.
But he also said that the state would need to pay $65 million to $70 million annually for 30 years to pay off a $1 billion bond. Committee members expressed support for funding roads this way, but questioned where that money would come from.
So does Mattox’s boss, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who does not plan to propose a bond issue this session, spokeswoman Kimberly Osborne said Thursday. She noted that Tomblin has proposed creating a new fund, fueled by future surplus revenues, for roads and other infrastructure.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall cited how lawmakers tried to increase road funding last year by hiking an array of Division of Motor Vehicle fees. Tomblin vetoed that measure; Mattox said that was for lack of a detailed plan for spending the resulting revenues, but that his department has been working with the governor to develop such a plan.
“We need some real political muscle here, to look at the public of the state of West Virginia and say, ‘We really need you to own the problem, because your legislators have to step up and make some tough votes if we’re going to fund the types of ideas that I’ve heard here today,” Hall said. I’m willing to do it, and I’m a Republican. I voted for that bill last year.”
West Virginia’s Constitution sets tight limits on state debt, requiring voters to approve financing bonds. They have agreed to at least seven road bond amendments since 1920, including in 1996.
The ongoing Capitol Hill debate over government spending has limited federal highway dollars, Mattox said. That leaves the State Road Fund, which relies on such related revenue sources as taxes on fuel and vehicle sales and on registration fees. But West Virginia University economist Tom Witt, who has long studied the issue, reminded the committees that the buying power from these revenue sources continues to decline.
Director of WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Witt said motorists are actually paying less in gas taxes than they did a decade ago. Fuel efficiency continues to improve, while gas prices and the recession have led to fewer miles driven. Then there are vehicles that run on electricity, natural gas or other sources not taxed for the road fund, he noted.
“We’re going to be seeing these more and more of these alternative fuel vehicles on our highways, on our bridges, contributing to the wear and tear and they’re not going to be paying their fair share,” Witt said.
Witt touted bonds as an option, citing the historically low interest rates.
“Floating bonds reinforces the concept of the benefits received principle of taxation,” Witt said.
Lawmakers also heard Thursday from West Virginians for Better Transportation, a coalition that includes construction industry groups, labor unions and business associations. Its leaders urged state officials to develop a long-term plan for tackling road and other transportation needs.
Board Chairman Bill Hillborn said that West Virginia has the nation’s 6th-largest state-maintained road system, but ranks next-to-last for capital investment per system mile.
“We think it’s time to bring transportation to the forefront and conquer that issue,” Hillborn told lawmakers.
To underscore the state’s reliance on its roadways, Senate Transportation Chair Bob Beach said the average West Virginian travels 11,600 miles in a year.
“That’s an incredible amount of time in your vehicle,” the Monongalia Democrat said. “That’s practically a second home.”