Gov. Jim Justice on Monday ventured into what may be the epicenter of bad roads in the state — Marshall County, where county commissioners earlier this month declared a state of emergency over poor road conditions — and got an earful of complaints from county residents.
The governor was at the Marshall County Courthouse in Moundsville to present more than $1 million in grants for broadband and sewer upgrades. But he spent most of the nearly hour-long meeting fielding complaints from residents, and pledging to re-emphasize efforts to fix roads in the Northern Panhandle county, which has experienced a surge in natural gas production.
Justice told the audience at the event, which was streamed online, that it’s easy to figure out the causes of the terrible road conditions in the county.
“It’s neglect, compounded with the trucks,” he said, referring to heavy tractor-trailer traffic by natural gas drillers. “You’ve got gas, gas, gas, and trucks, trucks, trucks, you’re going to have holes, holes, holes.”
Earlier this month, Marshall County commissioners declared a state of emergency for county roads, after a major road slip closed a school bus route in the county.
Last week, Justice announced plans to move an additional $80 million into secondary road maintenance this summer, and the Division of Highways published lists of projects in each county to be accomplished by June 30, most involving routine spring maintenance projects, under the headings “mow,” “patch,” and “ditch.”
Several speakers Monday — including Sen. Michael Maroney, R-Marshall — said the proposed improvements for Marshall County are not enough to deal with the problem.
“I agree the problem started decades ago, and you’re taking it head-on,” Maroney told Justice.
Justice urged the audience to give him 30 days to work with Highways to come up with a plan for “increased emphasis” on Marshall County roads.
“Before sundown tonight, we’ll be on this,” the governor said.
“Just give me the summer, just give me this time now that I’m dialed in completely on the secondary road situation,” he said. “I’m going to fix it, someway, somehow.”
Justice alluded to the need to require natural gas drillers to help pay to repair the roads they’ve damaged, but did not give specifics.
“In all honesty, we know who’s tearing the roads to pieces, and we need participation,” he said. “The only way to put a lot of resources toward it, in all honesty, is to have the companies participate in some way.”
Justice noted that in his first session as governor, he proposed a tiered severance tax system, in which tax rates on coal, oil, and natural gas would increase as market prices for those resources go up, a proposal soundly rejected by the Legislature.
Justice again blamed his predecessors in the governor’s office for permitting state roads to decline, and stressed that he is different from them.
“I’m not in some ivory tower,” he said. “I’m not a person who has a party every other night.”
Also Monday, Justice commented on an upcoming special session on public education, saying, “We have to acknowledge that our education system needs to be improved. There has to be real reform taking place.”
Justice said he supports a 5 percent on average pay raise for teachers and school service personnel, a floor on the state school aid formula for school systems with fewer than 1,400 students, incentive pay for math and science teachers, funding for more school nurses and counselors, as well as “some pilot charter schools.”
“That’s real improvement without us getting into a food fight,” he said, referring to Senate leaders’ controversial education package that was defeated in the regular session, which also called for more expansive charter schools, education savings accounts, and provisions aimed at penalizing teachers’ unions.