I’ll be the first to admit that numbers confound me, but never more so than when trying to make sense of Gov. Jim Justice’s three-pronged approach to increase secondary road maintenance funding.
In very broad (insert vague) terms, Justice pledged to put more money into what he called “fixing the damn roads” by:
| Shaving a portion off the $913 million of Roads to Prosperity bonds sold but sitting in the vault not yet committed to specific construction projects.
Justice said the plan is not to cancel any Roads to Prosperity projects, but to “skinny them down” by scaling back the scope of some projects.
However, that’s probably cold comfort if you voted for the Roads to Prosperity bond referendum in October 2017 because your road project was eighth or ninth on the poster board list of regional projects to be funded — a list that Justice displayed at the many bond issue rallies around the state. Bids for a number of high-profile projects have come in well over budget, and the projects have had to be scaled back already.
| Use of “pay-as-you-go” (or “pay-go” for short) funding, using money that eventually will be committed to paying off the second round of Roads to Prosperity bonds, bonds that have not yet gone to market.
Sounds good, but didn’t former Transportation Secretary Tom Smith testify on several occasions during the legislative session that the pay-go money has already been committed to secondary road repairs, growing that funding from about $60 million a year to more than $200 million currently?
“Even in tripling it, there’s so much more to do, and we know that,” Smith told the House Finance Committee back on Jan. 28.
Sounds like some kind of accounting trick to double-count that funding source.
While Justice and Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy were completely nebulous about how much money would be freed up for secondary roads, at one point at his presser, Justice threw out a $240 million figure.
Is that $240 million of new money or $240 million including the $140 million-plus already committed from pay-go?
| Dedicating future budget surpluses to secondary roads. Again, it sounds promising, but keep in mind half of every surplus by law must go into the state Rainy Day reserve funds, and that given a taste of surplus revenue this session, our supposedly conservative Legislature acted like the proverbial drunken sailors, approving spending increases and tax cuts that inevitably will shrink future surpluses.
Bottom line, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways spelled it out clearly in its preliminary report in 2013 and final report in 2015: In order to adequately maintain state roads, the state needs to be putting an additional $750 million a year, every year, into road maintenance.
Of course, the report drew widespread criticism. Then-Delegate Marty Gearhart, R-Mercer, called it a “colossal failure,” saying, “I’m not certain we have a billion-dollar problem.”
Then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the Legislature ignored the recommendations to sell $1 billion-plus of road bonds, and to increase various motor vehicle taxes and fees — steps largely adopted in 2017 with Roads to Prosperity.
A lot of critics dismissed the Blue Ribbon Commission’s findings, contending that the contractors, engineers and union representatives on the panel had padded the numbers in hopes of benefiting from contracts for the big-dollar roads projects.
For sake of argument, let’s say the commission padded the cost estimates doubly, and that the true amount of additional funding needed to adequately maintain state roads is only $375 million a year.
Since the initial report came out, that’s a total of $2.25 billion of deferred maintenance on our highways. No wonder the roads are crumbling.
As is typical with Justice, his approach to addressing the problem is shatter-shot, reactive rather than proactive, with an attitude of spreading blame rather than accepting responsibility, throwing together a plan that is vague to the point of being meaningless.
At his presser, Justice ignored two realities, one being that tractor-trailers and heavy equipment used by the natural gas industry and pipeline builders is a major contributor to the deterioration of many state roads; the other that the current roads maintenance budget deficit cannot be resolved without new revenue — as Senate Transportation Chairman Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, frankly noted last week:
“Unfortunately, the only true answer I see is that we’re going to have to increase the motor fuel tax, and nobody wants to do that,” he said.
By contrast, Justice — who likes to preface that he’s not a politician before doing something blatantly political — stated, “We’re not going to raise taxes. We’re not going to do that on my watch.”
Particularly underwhelming is Justice’s appointment of Byrd White, an accountant and former manager of his now-defunct country club, as acting secretary of the Department of Transportation.
For most of the 30 years that West Virginia has had a transportation secretary, the individual holding that position has also served as state highways commissioner. In addition to saving on salary, that consolidated the administrative duties of the two positions.
That won’t be possible as long as White is acting secretary, since state Code 17-2A-2 mandates that the Highways Commissioner “shall be a person who is experienced in highway planning, finance, construction, maintenance, management and supervision.”
White’s lack of qualifications as transportation secretary stands in stark contrast to the man Justice fired, Tom Smith, a registered professional engineer who worked 37 years at the Federal Highway Administration, finishing his career there as division administrator for West Virginia, before becoming a senior transportation adviser for the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington, D.C.
No wonder Justice frequently referred to Smith as a “superstar” as they criss-crossed the state in 2017 to convince voters to support the Roads to Prosperity bond referendum.
What a gut-punch that had to be: Justice assigned Smith to oversee what ultimately will be up to $2.8 billion of major road construction projects, and then made him the fall guy when people started complaining about potholes.
It’s as if Justice fired a lawyer who had been editor of the law review and was president of the State Bar, and replaced him with a pal who has watched a lot of “Perry Mason.”
Justice’s pattern of firing highly competent, highly experienced, highly qualified individuals on a whim (see also Thrasher, Woody) must be making it increasingly difficult for the administration to attract good, capable people to key positions.
I have to say my first impression of Smith was a positive one.In one of his first acts as the new transportation secretary in 2017, he attended the state Rail Authority meeting. Ostensibly, the Rail Authority is one of the agencies under the department’s umbrella, but it would have been understandable if after a career in highways engineering, Smith treated rail as an afterthought.
However, Smith was very engaged during the meeting, among other things, offering advice that the authority participate in a study ongoing at the time regarding declining coal shipments by rail nationally, with the concern being the potential for railroads to downgrade or abandon rail lines in the state if traffic dropped too low.
At the authority’s most recent meeting this year, Smith talked about the importance of preserving MARC commuter rail service into the Eastern Panhandle, saying it could be a valuable amenity in encouraging people to relocate there with the new Amazon HQ at Crystal City, Virginia, assured to drive up housing prices and traffic congestion in the D.C. metro area.
As a longtime commuter to Washington, Smith understood the value of commuter rail and long-distance rail in helping reduce traffic congestion.
He worked hard to get $1.1 million of funding in the 2019-20 state budget to help continue MARC service in the panhandle, even as legislators and county commissioners from the region balked at providing any support.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Justice presser without a good “Jimism” or two, and at his press conference unveiling his plan for secondary road maintenance, he introduced us to Edith, who lives up Hoo Hoo Hollow.
Edith, according to the allegory, doesn’t give a whit about the state building a $300 million interstate bridge — an apparent reference to the Interstate 70 project through Wheeling where the low bid of $275 million was more than $100 million over budget.
“She just cares about how she can get to the convenience store,” Justice said.
(Although Justice’s reliance on homespun tales has grown tiresome, I still marvel at how the wacky allegories always have a level of specificity to them: Edith doesn’t just need a passable road to get out of the hollow, she needs to get to the 7-Eleven.)
As I was soon informed, Hoo Hoo Hollow is a real place, located outside Lester in Raleigh County.
No Edith from Hoo Hoo Hollow has come forward yet, and given the small number of houses up the hollow (via Google Maps), she may exist only in Justice’s imagination.
(Given the popularity of “All in the Family” in the ’70s, one would think there would be a goodly number of 40-something Ediths. Oh well.)