Highway commission to release final report

Nearly two years since its creation by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, and nearly a year after it issued recommendations for funding state roads, the final report of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways has yet to be issued -- although it will be released by next month, according to the commission chairman.

“The Blue Ribbon report is going through the final proofreading and editing right now,” chairman Jason Pizatella, who also serves as chief counsel to Tomblin, said Wednesday.

He said the chairpersons of the House and Senate Transportation committees asked that the final report be available for September legislative interim meetings, the next meetings scheduled to be held in Charleston.

“We want to get the report in the hands of the policy makers so they can decide between now and January what parts of the report they want to address,” Pizatella said.

He said the final report makes no changes to the recommendations approved by the commission last September.

After months of public hearings and consultant presentations, commissioners concluded the state needs to nearly double its Road Fund budget, from $1.1 billion a year to at least $2 billion, in order to be able to adequately build and maintain the state highway system.

In lieu of tax increases, commissioners proposed increasing a variety of Division of Motor Vehicle fees, and proposed a $1.5 billion bond issue, to be funded by keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike through 2049.

Those proposals grew criticism from some legislators, particularly Republicans and those in Turnpike counties, where the current tolls are set to expire in 2019.

At the time, Tomblin said he would “reserve judgment” on the proposed bond issue, questioning whether the state was in a position to undertake a bond sale of that magnitude.

Pizatella conceded that part of the reason in delaying the release of the report was to avoid having issues of extending Turnpike tolls and raising DMV fees come before the Legislature in an election year.

“We were also concerned at the time about how the federal Highway Trust Fund was going to work out,” he said.

Just hours before the fund was to run out of money Aug. 1, Congress approved a $10 billion appropriation that will keep the fund solvent through May, but failed to come up with a long-term federal transportation funding plan.

Pizatella also noted that four neighboring states have enacted initiatives to increase highway funding. That includes Ohio, which last year had a $1.5 billion road bond issue, to be paid off by extending tolls on the Ohio Turnpike.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

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