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Statehouse Beat: Small state, big road system

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways saw a rough cut last week of a video it plans to release to build public support for its proposals to increase funding for state roads.It features this catch phrase: "West Virginia is a small state with a big highway system."Indeed, West Virginia's state road system is sixth-largest in the U.S. (since there is no county road system), and the state's population is stagnant at 1.8 million.Currently, West Virginia puts about $1.2 billion a year into its state Road Fund, but consultants told the commission the state basically needs to double that amount if it wants to adequately maintain the roads it has, as well as complete all the highways projects on the books, such as U.S. 35 and the Coalfields Expressway.The easy solution would be to simply double all the taxes that fund the Road Fund, but imagine the uproar if the gas tax suddenly jumped to 69 cents a gallon, and the privilege tax on vehicle purchases increased to 10 percent of the car's purchase price.So last week, the wiser heads on the governor's commission came up with alternative approach: Let out-of-state travelers pick up the bulk of the tab for funding state highways.The plan is to sell $1 billion of road bonds, to be paid off by keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike for another 30 years after the current bonds are paid off in 2019. The theory being that, since 76 percent of the Turnpike tolls are paid by out-of-staters, the state would effectively be relying on the generosity of strangers to keep its road system intact.Okay, so it wasn't that original an idea -- the proposal is modeled after a $1.5 billion road bond issue currently being undertaken in Ohio, funded through tolls on the Ohio Turnpike.And it's not unlike the system the state used for nearly two decades to help keep its budget balanced: State-sanctioned casino gambling has brought in billions of out-of-state dollars since 1991-- until Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland cut off the spigot by legalizing casinos of their own, and keeping their gamblers at home. The downside to the proposal is that $1 billion of bond debt is not a trifle, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has already expressed reluctance to take on that amount of debt.The other problem is that, in addition to the $1 billion, the commission has proposed about $103 million a year in new Road Fund revenue, primarily from increases in various Division of Motor Vehicles fees, raising about $77.4 million a year.Over 30 years, that amounts to about $4 billion -- nowhere close to the $36 billion of additional revenue consultants indicate is needed to build and maintain state roads over that period of time.*Commission member <B>Brenda Nichols Harper<P> noted that it will be difficult to convince the public to accept higher fees or another 30 years of Turnpike tolls so long as they have a "one working-three leaning" perception of the Division of Highways.
Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox stressed that the department has taken steps to improve efficiencies, including reducing personnel by 10 to 12 percent since 2005, allowing it to shift an additional $108 million a year to road construction.
However, insiders say the DOH is in shambles administratively, with "acting" personnel in charge of numerous districts and divisions.Among them, David Bodnar, acting director, engineering; Ryland Musick, acting director, programming; Richard Warner, acting director, planning: John McBrayer, acting director, human resources: R.J. Scites, acting District 1 manager; Tom Badgett, acting District 6 manager; and <B>Ameche Watson, acting office services director.Transportation spokesman Brent Walker said there's no way to avoid having people serving in acting positions, noting, "It's what happens when you have changes in management positions. It kind of ripples down."When DOH human resources director Jeff Black retired, that necessitated moving District 1 manger McBrayer into that office, and Scites into District 1, Walker said.*Finally, despite all the inefficiencies, DOH had enough resources available to send a 16-member delegation to the Southeastern Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (SASHTO) annual conference Aug. 24-28, at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C.
In addition to meetings and technical sessions, activities included a reception at the Biltmore House, a golf tournament, and an Asheville Tourists baseball game featuring dinner in the ballpark's picnic area.West Virginia attendees were: Mattox, Harry Bergstrom, Darrell Allen, Keith Chapman, Greg Bailey, Ron Smith, Todd Rumbaugh, Kyle Stollings, Karen Zamow, Musick, Denise Gould, Kathy Bowe, Dan Sikora, Aaron Gillispie, Marvin Murphy, and Tom Smith, who is West Virginia Division director for the Federal Highway Administration.Reach Phil Kabler at or 304-348-1220.      
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