A $139 million cash infusion for secondary road repairs is helping, but Division of Highways officials told West Virginia legislators it will take that much and more each year to adequately fix and maintain 36,000 miles of state roads.
“The Blue Ribbon Commission report told you we need another $750 million to maintain that 36,000 miles of road,” Deputy Highways Commissioner Jimmy Wriston told interim committees on Transportation Accountability and Infrastructure. “That’s annually; $750 million annually.”
Wriston was referring to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, a panel of experts assembled in 2012 to come up with long-term solutions for the highways system. The commission concluded that, to adequately complete, repair and maintain the roads system, the state would need to more than double the $1.1 billion annually it spends on roads.
“That report came out in 2013, so you can see we’re $5.5 billion behind,” Wriston added. “That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Record tax collection in 2018-19 allowed the Legislature to move more than $100 million in budget surplus to secondary-roads maintenance. Currently, however, a downturn in the energy sector and loss of natural gas pipeline construction jobs has the state facing a potential budget shortfall for the current budget year.
Wriston said Highways has done more secondary road maintenance in the past six months than it normally does in a full year, but he added it will take years of increased funding to take care of all roads.
“We’ve under-invested in our infrastructure for decades,” he said. “We’ve got to solve this problem.”
Legislators also heard from two retired Highways employees hired as consultants under a $199,050 contract. Tom Badgett and Rusty Roten said they will be looking at ways Highways district and county offices can operate more efficiently.
Badgett agreed that the division needs sustained increased funding to repair secondary roads statewide.
“You can’t solve 20 years of problems in 24 months,” he said.
Earlier, Highways officials and the director of civil engineering from Antero Resources discussed collaborative efforts to maintain access roads to natural gas wells and pipelines.
Damage to secondary roads caused by heavy truck traffic during wellpad construction and natural gas fracking has been a major source of public complaints about the poor condition of state roads.
“We do work with the oil and gas industries. We’ve been doing that for a long time,” Wriston told the interim Joint Committee on Natural Gas Development. “Is it a perfect policy? No.”
Antero’s Shelton Barger said his company works with Highways, and said its preferred policy is to upgrade roads prior to the surge in truck traffic, as opposed to fixing roads after the wellpad construction is completed.
He said gas companies frequently have to upgrade secondary roads for truck traffic, with widening of roadways, alignments and reducing sharp curves, which he said results in a finished product that is better than the original roadway.
Barger said he likes to tell Highways engineers, “You gave me a Chevy pickup, and I gave you a Cadillac.”
He said Antero spent $34 million on road projects in 2018 in the five counties where it operates.
Jason Foster, Highways special program engineer, agreed that upgrading roads beforehand is preferable to repairing roads afterward.
“We prefer that, any time a company is willing to do that,” he told the committee.