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Roads need $1 billion per year, group says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia should spend an additional $1.1 billion each year to preserve and expand its highway system, according to the preliminary recommendations from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways.

The commission's infrastructure committee approved its preliminary recommendations for how much the state should spend each year to provide residents with an effective highway system Wednesday evening.

Committee Chairman Joe Deneault detailed the recommendations during a meeting of the commission's Finance Committee Thursday morning at the state Capitol.

"The vision is pretty bold," Deneault said.

The numbers are eye-popping.

The 12-member infrastructure committee voted 9-3 in favor of recommending that the state spend an additional $750 million a year on maintenance designed to preserve current state roads.

It also recommended the state spend an additional $380 million a year on expansion projects

Denault, who is chairman of West Virginians for Better Transportation, said the high price tag is due to the fact that the state has not been able to pay for proper care of its roads over the years.

"We've ignored this problem for an awful long time, and our chickens are coming home to roost," he said.

The committee mulled three different scenarios.

First was spending no additional dollars on highway funding, but studies showed that maintaining the status quo would further delay state infrastructure maintenance and lead to a serious deterioration of the state's roads and bridges.

The committee estimated it would cost about $400 million each year to maintain the current quality of state roads and prevent further deterioration.

They also considered what Deneault considered the defect-free "Cadillac system" and how much it would take. That was estimated to cost about $1 billion more per year.

They picked the $750 million figure as a compromise, realizing some improvements would take place over time.

The $380 million for expansion projects would allow the Division of Highways to fund several large road projects over the next two decades.

Tomblin legislative director Jason Pizatella, the governor's liaison on the commission, said the infrastructure committee's recommendation is preliminary.

A final plan must be approved by the full commission before it's presented to the governor in May. Pizatella said the commission could change the recommendation by then.

"I'm sure they will discuss it, debate it and ultimately vote on whether to accept it or change it," he said. "We're still in the early stages.

"This just gives the revenue committee a baseline to look at," he said.

Revenue committee members acknowledged that finding a way to meet the recommended funding level would be a hard task.

"This is a big number that was presented to us from the infrastructure committee, so we need to think outside of the box," committee member Gary Tillis said.

While some of the money could be diverted from elsewhere in the state budget, new revenue also would be needed. That would mean new or higher taxes and fees.

Former state Senator Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, attended the meeting and suggested lawmakers could tap internet sales taxes as a means to fund future road projects.

Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said the National Conference of State Legislatures had been pushing Congress to give states the ability to collect taxes on internet sales.

"That's a $60 to $70 million revenue bump to the state if the federal government would authorize it," Hall said.

Other possibilities presented to the committee were increasing the sales tax on vehicles from 5 to 6 percent, which would raise about $38 million annually; a 6-cent surcharge for diesel on the state's gas tax to raise about $18 million; and transferring some state severance tax revenue to the road fund once the state's Workers' Compensation debt is paid off in 2016.

Retired West Virginia University Professor Tom Witt pointed out that average drivers are paying less in gas taxes now in spite of higher rates.

Due to increased fuel economy standards over the years, Witt said the average driver saw a drop in the annual cost of the gas tax from $213.75 in 2001 to $122.18 in 2013.

He said officials needed to keep that in mind when they consider politically risky proposals like increasing fuel taxes imposed per gallon.

Witt also pointed out some inconsistencies in state tax law.

Right now the state offers a $7,500 income tax credit to people who buy some electric, natural gas or hybrid cars.

In addition to reducing general tax revenue, Witt said the state also gets hit when these cars drive down gas tax revenue.

"There's a conflict in public policy here between these two issues," he said.

The finance committee will review a slew of revenue options over the next month to see if they can meet the infrastructure committee's funding recommendation. They plan to meet again Feb. 7 to review their findings.

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

 


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