Disaster spending straps road fund
Revenue officials had to give the State Road Fund a $6.5 million infusion in December after three prominent disasters siphoned much of its cash.
The state Department of Transportation has dealt with three costly, unforeseen events over the last six months: the June 29 derecho, Superstorm Sandy, and last month's powerful natural gas line explosion near Sissonville, which badly damaged a portion of Interstate 77.
Each event forced the department to spend a lot of money in a short amount of time to make state roads passable again.
Department spokesman Brent Walker said that while the final cost of the emergency overnight paving job that reopened I-77 has yet to be tallied, the derecho and Sandy costs have.
The price tag: $30 million.
Walker said that unbudgeted emergency spending, combined with the stagnant flow of revenue for the already cash-strapped road fund, put transportation officials in a bit of a pinch in December.
"With those costs in the $30 million range now, we had some cash flow issues," he said.
Fortunately, there was money in the General Revenue Fund set aside for the department.
The state makes a regular transfer of sales tax revenue to the State Road Fund in June each year, Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow said.
The transfer is a reimbursement for sales tax expenses incurred by highways contractors.
That amount, which has been $12 million to $15 million annually, is designed to cover a small portion of the state's annual highway construction contract costs.
Muchow said officials were able to make an early transfer of $6.5 million in December to help offset the department's emergency costs.
Derecho-related costs tallied $14 million, Walker said. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse $11 million, officials have yet to see most of that money.
He said FEMA reimbursements work in one of two ways. If a project's costs are less than $64,500, FEMA will make an upfront payment. If it's higher, then the state is required to cover the upfront costs.
"We don't get paid until the work is completed and project's audited," Walker said. "So there's a drag time there."
Also, the transportation department is looking at a significantly higher bill for Sandy costs than they originally estimated.
In early November, Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said he believed Sandy cleanup costs would top out around $6 million.
After fully assessing the damage across secondary roads, however, state officials now believe the cost will be significantly higher.
"It's estimated now at just over $15 million," Walker said.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, state road crews focused solely on making roads passable. Heavy debris in many places was simply moved off the road and set aside.
Mattox said crews would then come in later to clear the debris along those roads.
But Walker said that after crews went out and surveyed the amount of debris left behind, they realized it would be a major feat.
"It was a storm the likes of which we have never seen," he said.
Rather than having highways crews finish the work, the department bid out 11 different contracts in early December to allow private contractors to finish the work.
The contracts, totaling nearly $3 million, cover the clearing of 1,250 miles worth of roads in Barbour, Webster, Braxton, Upshur, Preston and Taylor counties.
Walker said that when you include the road and right-of-way width, those contractors will have about 4,900 acres of land to clear.
That's roughly 7.6 square miles of land covered in debris.
Walker said the sheer volume of wood and other waste that needs to be removed from the area is enormous.
"Secretary Mattox had heard it described by one of our maintenance folks as being the size of a football field and with debris piled over 80 stories high," he said.
That would be nearly four times as high as Charleston's Laidley Tower.
Officials said the projects could last through the spring.
"We will still be involved in cleanup through April," Walker said.
As for the derecho, FEMA will reimburse the state once the projects are complete. But it could be some time before the state gets the money.
Barring any further catastrophes, Walker said the $6.5 million transfer made in December should be enough to cover road fund costs until the state receives money from FEMA.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.