A $300 million funding infusion has helped the West Virginia Division of Highways jump-start long-neglected secondary roads maintenance, but is still far short of the $750 million a year the division needs to adequately maintain state roads, Highways officials told legislators Tuesday.
“We need $750 million annually, every year,” Deputy Highways Commissioner Jimmy Wriston told the interim Joint Oversight Commission on Transportation Accountability. “We’ve needed it every year for six years, since the Blue Ribbon Commission report came out.”
Commissioned by then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, a panel of legislators, state and local officials, and industry and labor representatives, in 2013 concluded that the state needed to essentially double what it spends at Highways to complete construction and adequately maintain roads.
Tomblin and legislators balked at the $1.3 billion total annual cost, and shelved the report.
Highways Maintenance Division Director Jacob Bumgarner on Tuesday told legislators the division has spent about $125 million of the $304 million allotment for maintenance so far this calendar year. That funding includes the transfer of about $104 million of general revenue budget surplus from 2018-19.
“We’re working hard to get to as much roadway as we can,” he said. “It’s a big animal here that we’re trying to tame.”
At this point, he said, the division is over halfway to its goal this year to patch 24,000 road miles, ditching 14,000 road miles and mowing 54,000 road miles, with locations being mowed more than once a year.
Heeding widespread complaints about poor secondary road conditions, Gov. Jim Justice in March fired then-Transportation secretary Tom Smith, a career Highways engineer, and called for shifting additional funding for road maintenance.
“We went back to our roots, and we’ve focused on maintenance,” Wriston said. “It’s a long road to go yet, no question about that.”
- Julian Woods, the division’s human resources director, said Highways has roughly 4,900 full-time employees, about 200 below what he would consider full staffing.
However, Wriston stressed that it remains challenging to recruit and retain engineers, given the division’s relatively low pay scales.
“The problem is the [private] industry is taking them away from me,” he said. “They’re paying them better. Their benefits are better. I’m losing them all the time.”
“A $95,000 salary is almost an entry-level person for someone two years’ out of school going to these consultants,” Wriston said, referring to the statutory salary for the state Transportation secretary.
“I can’t compete with a $140,000 to $150,000 salary for a mid-level engineer,” he said.
In 2017, the Legislature passed a law requiring Highways to restructure its pay grades to make its salaries more competitive with the private sector. The division’s failure to act is the subject of a mass employee grievance by more than 400 Highways employees.
Wriston said he hopes Congress will rescind a provision in federal transportation legislation that would require states to give back a total of $7.6 billion in transportation funding in 2020.
He said Congress is working on legislation to stop the move, which would cost West Virginia about $120 million in federal highways funds.
“It would be a devastating thing if it happens to us,” he said.