Highway officials may float road bond
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - It will take a lot more money to keep West Virginia's roads from deteriorating. This much is known.
What remains to be seen is where the money will come from.
One option is a $1 billion to $1.5 billion road bond. West Virginia Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox floated just such an idea in January.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who was then gearing up to run for re-election on a "more jobs, lower taxes" platform, stayed as far away from that idea as possible. A new bond does not necessarily require higher taxes to pay for it - if the state can find money to pay off the bond from within the existing budget.
Now, a Tomblin-appointed blue ribbon commission may again look at a road bond, though members say it is far too premature to know whether there will be a bond, how much money the commission will go looking for or where they will find it.
Gary Tillis, a labor representative on the commission, said he is going to recommend a road bond. To make that happen, the Legislature would have to approve the idea and put it in front of the state's voters.
"If you look at it, if you're going to borrow it, now's a good time," said Tillis, a member of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation.
Tillis predicted the road bond idea would "more than likely" be what the commission recommends.
Other commission members are not so sure.
"He's probably speaking to personal preferences there," said Bob Orders, the head of the road commission's revenue subcommittee and the CEO of St. Albans-based Orders Construction. "I have no indication that bonds would be the predominant method of funding highways going forward, but, certainly, bonding will be one of the myriad revenue sources that will be up for discussion."
Jason Pizatella, the Tomblin administration's legislative director, said it is "awfully premature" to say the commission will back a bond. The commission's recommendations are not due for several months.
"A bond is certainly an option," Pizatella said. "But one of many."
The commission's revenue subcommittee has yet to meet. It is still waiting to learn how much money it needs to look for. The revenue subcommittee is going to take recommendations from an infrastructure subcommittee, which is deciding what the state should do to maintain or expand its highway system. Once the infrastructure subcommittee comes up with a plan, the revenue subcommittee is supposed to come up with a way to pay for the plan over the next decades.
If the state does issue a bond, there would need to be a steady flow of money to pay off the bond. A 20-year, $1 billion bond would cost the state about $65 million a year, Pizatella said.
A bond also may not solve all of the state's road problems. Mattox floated the bond idea as a way to jump-start 17 major highway projects. He did not suggest a bond could maintain the state's existing roads.
Joe Deneault, a retired state highway engineer and chairman of the commission's infrastructure subcommittee, said the state is going to have to find some money somewhere unless West Virginians want to watch their roads crumble.
The times are not great to begin with, either: Tomblin is already trying to cut the budget to prepare for a Medicaid-related budget shortfall.
But if the state wants to keep roads from deteriorating, officials need to find something like more than $400 million just to keep the road system from getting worse, Deneault said.
With that much money, Deneault said the road system "doesn't get any worse; it doesn't get any better." To make roads better than they are now would require hundreds of millions more.
"We have to find additional revenues to be able to have any strategy going forward to accelerate any construction," Deneault said. "Bonds may very well be a part of that strategy, but we've got to get that revenue stream first."
Some commission members are dead set against raising taxes to find that money.
"The absolute last thing that's going to happen here in West Virginia is increasing taxes to pay for this," said Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha.
Walters said more than $150 million is going to become free inside the state budget in the next several years. That money is currently dedicated to pay off things that Walter said would soon be wholly paid for.