Editorial: Pathway to improved roads long, winding

It’s no secret the state’s roads and bridges need help.

Nearly three years ago, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin created the 31-member Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, tasking the body with assessing the state’s infrastructure needs and developing a plan of action.

On Wednesday, the Commission finally released its report, outlining steps the state should take to appropriately address maintenance and improvement issues.

Among recommendations, as reported by the Daily Mail’s Joel Ebert: keep and eventually increase tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike, increase the motor vehicle sales tax and motor vehicle licensing fees and levy an alternative fuel vehicle registration fee.

Surprisingly, the report made no recommendation on the state’s motor vehicle fuel tax, which, at 14.1 cents per gallon, provides $431 million to the state road fund.

The Commission found the state would need an additional $1.13 billion annually to improve and maintain the current system. The new revenues the Commission pinpointed accounts for just over $141 million of that. It’s clear there is no cheap, easy answer to repairing the state’s roads.

The report, though long awaited, doesn’t provide many answers. Instead, future governors and legislatures will have a big task at hand when and if they act on these suggestions.

In 1933, the Legislature voted to shift the responsibility of road maintenance from counties to the state. Because of that, West Virginia now has the sixth largest state-maintained highway system in the country, and the vast majority of our roads are not eligible for federal funding.

Perhaps our modern Legislature should consider, over time, undoing the work of legislatures past. Is it really appropriate for the state to be responsible for maintaining more than 90 percent of roadways? Could part of that responsibility be shifted back to the counties? That move would just shift the financial burden as well, but maybe it’s something lawmakers should consider.

Coincidently, the Commission’s report was released as a legislative task force considers broad tax reform. The roads report acts as its own road map for policy makers, offering a baseline of recommendations and outlining the problems our roads and bridges face.

Taxpayers generally don’t want to pay increased taxes and fees, but the state must maintain a good system of roads and bridges.

There is no easy answer here. Like the roads themselves, the pathway to an improved highways system is going to be long, winding and not easily maneuvered.

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