Highways report outlines challenges, recommends funding possibilities

BOB WOJCIESZAK/DAILY MAIL FILE PHOTO
Among the recommendations from the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Commission report on state highways was a proposed increase in Turnpike tolls to help fund road maintenance and expansion.

A toll increase on the state’s turnpike system was among several recommendations included in the final report of the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, which was released on Wednesday, almost three years after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called for a study of the state’s infrastructure.

While many of the report’s findings have already been publicized, including the need for $1.1 billion annually to provide for the expansion and maintenance of the current highway system, the commission’s work provides lawmakers and state officials with a comprehensive analysis and recommendations for addressing the infrastructure woes facing the state.

The work of the 31-member commission was guided by three themes: the need for new sources of revenue beyond the State Road Fund, finding innovative financing methods and determining ways to save money with the current system.

Secretary of Administration Jason Pizatella, who served as chairman of the commission, said Wednesday that the future of the state’s turnpike was a fourth theme considered during the group’s work.

In terms of new revenue sources, the report made several recommendations including a 1 percent increase of the motor vehicle sales tax, as well as increases in vehicle registration fees, which the commission estimates could annually generate $141 million.

The commission also recommended an $200 annual registration fee for alternative fueled vehicles — cars that run on hydrogen, natural gas and non-petrochemicals — and a separate $100 yearly registration fee cars that are fueled by electricity and petrochemicals.

Additionally, the highway commission also suggested continuing the state’s toll road, which is estimated to be a $1 billion asset, after the current bonds are paid off in 2019. It further called for the state Parkways Authority, which operates the turnpike, to issue up to $1 million in bonds for road projects throughout the state. The $1 million bond would be backed by future increased toll revenue.

The commission further called for a five-year freeze of toll rates for those with E-ZPass but an annual increase ranging from 10 percent to 25 percent for those without the pass. According to the report the increase would become effective July 1, 2016.

About 74 percent of the money collected from the state’s sole turnpike derives from out-of-state residents. In fiscal year 2014, the turnpike generated $84.9 million in total revenue.

Pizatella said the various recommendations from the committee come after considerable discussion with the state’s residents through public forums.

“The overwhelming majority of West Virginians feel a personal connection with the state highway system,” he said.

An overwhelming majority said that with the right circumstances they would be willing to pay a little bit more to make sure that our state highway system is maintained to the extent that we want it to be.”

Pizatella said the majority of the public who weighed in on the commission’s work supported the continuation of tolling in West Virginia.

Although the report made several recommendations for additional revenue sources, Robert Orders, who served as chairman of the commission’s revenue committee, said, “This is far short of the revenue needed to maintain and build our highway system.”

He called for finding additional ways to enhance the state’s revenue streams as the commission moves forward with the next phase of its work.

The report also provided an overview of the complex situation the state finds itself in with its highway system.

West Virginia is one of four states — including Delaware, North Carolina and Virginia — that is financially responsible for all roads and bridges in the state except for municipalities. Because of that, the state Division of Highways is responsible for the construction and maintenance of about 94 percent of public highway mileage, the vast majority of which is not eligible for federal assistance. That makes West Virginia the sixth-largest state-maintained highway system in the country.

The report also provides a stark overview of the deterioration of West Virginia’s roads and bridges. About 36 percent of the state’s major roads have been deemed in poor or mediocre condition. About 35 percent of the state’s bridges are in need of improvement, repair or replacement.

With much of the country facing financial uncertainty due to the lack of a federal highway bill, which is set to expire at the end of this month, the commission looked at how other states in the region enacted measures to address their own transportation needs. Maryland, for example, passed a transportation package, which included implementing a new sales tax on the price of motor fuel, which will generate an estimated $8 billion for new projects over the next six years. In 2013, Pennsylvania enacted measures that are expected to allow the state to dedicate $2.3 billion towards transportation projects.

The commission’s final report also recommended further study of the state’s highway system.

While discussing the report on Wednesday, Secretary of Transportation Paul Mattox applauded the efforts of the committee, as well a move by state lawmakers during the 2015 session to audit the state Division of Highways.

“It’s critically important that we maintain our roads at a certain level,” he said. “It’s only going to get worse unless we take some measures and address the situation.”

Ending the commission’s discussion on the report, Orders said, “I hope we’ll look at this as the beginning to the resolution of this problem and not the end because the problem’s not solved. We’ve got a lot in front of us.”

Despite the release of the final report, the work of the commission is not done. Pizatella said the commission will further discuss the findings of the highways audit once that is completed and consider other ideas such as a vehicle miles traveled tax, which was recently implemented in Oregon. They will also provide the Joint Select Committee on Tax Reform with a copy of the commission’s work, he said.

Pizatella said he remained hopeful that the report’s release will encourage the state’s lawmakers to finally address the state’s transportation needs. “It is on everybody’s minds. It’s just a matter of using this document as a starting point to be able to make some hard choices. It’s not going to be easy,” he said.

To read the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Commission’s entire 57-page report, visit http://blogs.charlestondailymail.com/capitolnotebook.

Contact writer Joel Ebert at 304-348-4843 or joel.ebert@dailymailwv.com. Follow him on twitter.com/joelebert29.

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