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Blue ribbon panel targets needs for state roads

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginians will see more deteriorating roads and greater congestion over the next 25 years unless something is done to shore up highway funding, analysts told a state infrastructure committee Thursday.

The infrastructure committee of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways held its first meeting at the state Capitol Thursday morning.

The committee will spend the next month determining the state's road needs in the coming decades so state lawmakers can find a way to adequately fund them.

Their goal is to analyze the highway system's maintenance and construction needs in light of an ever-shrinking pool of federal funds.

"Our function here is to try to determine the adequate level of needs to serve our citizens," said Commission Chairman Joe Deneault, who is also chairman of West Virginians for Better Transportation.

Jason Pizatella, legislative director for the Tomblin administration, said the infrastructure committee is one of three panels tasked with forming a long-term, sustainable plan for state roads.

The other committees are to come up with a revenue scheme to fund the road system and proposed legislation.  

"Once infrastructure committee makes its recommendations, probably some time in mid-January, then the revenue committee will try to decide how to fund them," Pizatella said.

The third committee is to sell the plan to lawmakers and the general public.

The plan could include diverting state general revenue funds to the state road fund or increasing gas taxes or other fees charged to state residents.

"Everything is on the table," Pizatella said. "The federal funds are less and less, so it's going to fall to states more and more - so we've got make sure we're ready to step up."

On Thursday, consultants from CDM Smith of Charleston presented the committee with an analysis of the state's road needs over the next 25 years.

Actually, there were two analyses: one assuming current constrained revenues and the other an unconstrained wish list.

If money were no object, the state could spend $36.8 billion on expanding, modernizing and preserving state roads over the next quarter century.

"This is the ceiling for if you have all the money in the world as a state to invest," said consultant David Hurst. "It would be basically $8 billion for expansion, modernization is $14.9 billion . . . and preservation is $13.8 billion."

Hurst called this the "Cadillac" road system.

But since the state doesn't have that kind of money, analysts prioritized highway needs.

If it were to stay within its current budget parameters, the state would spend about $463 million annually on highway improvements and maintenance and another $101 million on bridges.  

But analysts projected that if this funding scheme were to continue, the state would see large increases in the number of state roads with deteriorating pavement conditions or congestion.

About 8 percent of state roads currently have bad pavement or congestion. That number could rise to nearly 18 percent by the end of the 25-year period, projections said.

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said voters in his district complain most about bad roads. He said lawmakers must find a way to fund a good road system.

 "We have to raise more revenue, like it or not, just to maintain the roads we've got now," Plymale said.

Committee members didn't discuss any specific suggestions for raising revenue. They just focused on what projected costs of needed maintenance and construction costs will be.

The Blue Ribbon Commission was originally tasked with coming up with a comprehensive plan to operate and fund the state's highway system to present to lawmakers by Feb. 1.

Pizatella said governor now plans to extend that deadline to May 1 so commission members can spend more time forming that plan.

He said officials also plan to hold public hearings on the plan next year.

Pizatella said Tomblin wants to make sure the state has a highway system that is safe and efficient and meets residents' needs.

"That's why the governor created this - he's serious about it," Pizatella said. "He wants to make highways and infrastructure one of his legacies over the next four years to get this system where we need to get it."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.

 


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