SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. – With a stagnant population base, rising costs and fewer federal dollars, the state Department of Transportation is cutting back on investments in new roads, according to the state Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox Jr.
Money is the real issue because costs keep increasing and revenue is declining, Mattox said.
“We’re prioritizing our projects, trying to make our money go as far as possible. Previously we always put expansion projects and funding for preservation of our existing system at about 50-50, with about $250 million for expansion and $250 million for small bridge replacement and repair of slips and slides,” Matttox said on Monday at the Legislative Lookahead sponsored by The Associated Press, the West Virginia Press Association and Marshall University.
Facing a $100 million-a-year reduction in federal funds – from $500 million to $400 million – “We’re looking at 70 percent for preservation and only 30 percent going toward new four-lane expansion and major bridge projects,” Mattox said.
“So you’ll be seeing a shift. One reason we’re focusing more on preservation is much of the system is on a 32-year paving cycle now. Our goal is a 12-year cycle. So one reason we’re changing is to address the paving issue. The interstate system is on about a six-year cycle. About two-thirds of the roads in the state only qualify for state funds. It’s that system that’s on a 32-year paving cycle.”
Finding funds for such projects could be a topic of discussion when the state Legislature’s 60-day session convenes Wednesday.
Heather Henline, publisher of the Inter-Mountain in Elkins, asked Mattox if the shift in spending emphasis will affect the Corridor H construction schedule.
Mattox said that until Congress passed the most recent federal highway bill, a formula determined that West Virginia would receive $32 million annually for Corridor H construction.
“They took that away” in the most recent federal highway bill but “we made the decision to keep that funding at the $32 million level,” Mattox said. “With the additional state match, it is about $40 million a year. That’s in our six-year plan. So the 70-30 mix won’t impact Corridor H.”
“There’s still about $1 billion of construction left to complete,” Mattox said.
With funding at $40 million a year, Corridor H is expected to be completed in 2036. However, “since we have $40 million a year dedicated to Corridor H construction, is there a way we could work with the private sector to get it built sooner rather than later by having a contractor design and construct the highway and we would pay for it over time? That’s a concept we’re looking at.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Blue Ribbon Highway Commission has determined the state has more than $1 billion in highway needs. The commission’s report was scheduled to be released in May. Randolph County Commissioner Mike Taylor, who serves on the commission, said it is hoped the final report will be presented to Tomblin by the end of this month.
Mattox thinks few people really understand the scope of the problem. “Our biggest challenge is we maintain the sixth-largest highway system in the country,” Mattox said. “There are some who say the department needs to be more efficient. But West Virginia ranks as the second-most efficient highways department in the country. I think No. 2 in the country is a pretty good place to be.”
Taylor, who serves on the commission’s Revenue Subcommittee, said, “One of the biggest challenges in front of this commission was to determine possible revenue sources to increase funding for repairs and construction.”
Possibilities include a $1 billion bond issue, increasing Division of Motor Vehicles fees, taxes on auto repairs, and higher West Virginia Turnpike tolls. Taylor said people who spoke at the commission’s hearings objected to increasing the fuel tax.
Mattox said, “We could use any type of additional revenue.” He recalled that a few years ago, when it was learned the state would receive $211 in federal stimulus money, he called a meeting of his senior staff. “It took 20 minutes to spend that money — $211 million was a drop in the bucket.”
In early 2011, Gov. Tomblin vetoed a bill that would have raised DMV fees by a total of $43 million a year. State Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, who chairs the state Senate Transportation Committee, said he does not believe the Legislature will consider raising DMV fees this year because “there’s still some pain from last time.”
Beach said he has heard that the Monongalia County Commission plans to propose home-rule legislation that would give county governments a mechanism to fund road, water, sewage and Internet infrastructure projects.
Mattox said the lack of population growth in West Virginia is also a problem when trying to maintain a large highway system. “Our biggest issue is a 1.8-million population base,” Matttox said, adding that the state’s population is expected to remain at 1.8 million in 20 years.
The Legislative Lookahead was hosted by Marshall University on its South Charleston campus.