State highways officials consider ways to raise road funds
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Many West Virginia roads are in bad shape, and lawmakers say only one thing will fix them: cold, hard cash.
The question is where that money will come from.
Speaking at a press conference held by West Virginians for Better Transportation on Thursday, Senate President Jeff Kessler said lawmakers would look at all potential solutions for raising money, and that could include an increase in gas taxes.
"I don't think folks would mind paying a few extra cents on a fill-up if they feel the roads are being taken care of," he said.
Sen. Bob Beach also spoke at the press conference. He said the state would look at a variety of ways to raise money for roads, including borrowing through the sale of bonds; tax hikes; and toll roads.
"We're looking at every possible solution," he said.
Beach asked attendees to help lawmakers sell these moves to their neighbors.
"It may be a little difficult, you may get a little heartburn from it, but it's something the state of West Virginia needs," he said.
Speaking at a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees Thursday afternoon, Jason Pizatella, legislative director for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said the governor's Blue Ribbon Highway Commission is looking at funding solutions being considered by nearby states.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has asked lawmakers in his state to pledge toll revenue from the Ohio Turnpike to retiring bonds sold to fund other road projects.
Members of Virginia's House of Delegates voted last week to eliminate that state's gas tax and raise its sales tax by 0.8 percent, according to The Washington Post. Officials estimate the change will generate $3 billion in road funds.
Pizatella said members of the commission are considering those plans, among others, to funnel more money into West Virginia roads.
Last summer Tomblin appointed lawmakers and industry representatives to that commission, asking them to create a long-term plan for the state's infrastructure and find a way to pay for it.
The commission will present its final report on May 1. Tomblin is then expected to call for a special legislative session to address the highway commission's suggestions.
State Transportation Secretary Paul Maddox said West Virginia has the sixth-largest network of state roads in the nation but is 49th in spending on those roads. The state spent about $7,500 per mile last year, compared to an average $24,000 per mile nationwide.
State motorists contribute an average 81 cents per day to roads, Maddox said. The average West Virginia driver uses 852 gallons of gas per year, which yields the state $296 via its gas taxes.
"This insufficient funding level can't last forever," he said. "We need a long-term solution to funding infrastructure. Our highway system is a bargain but it is not free."
But Maddox said the solution likely does not rest with gas taxes, since that revenue stream is dwindling as cars become more fuel-efficient.
Road funding currently comes from three sources: Division of Motor Vehicle fees, gas taxes and a 5 percent tax on new cars. That generates around $600 million each year, but revenue has remained flat for the last decade.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said the state needs a broad-based funding source for roads, some kind of user fee that will have everyone who uses roads helping to pay for their upkeep.
He said creating toll roads is one kind of user fee, but that does not work well for West Virginia roads because of the relatively low traffic levels. Solutions like the sales tax hike proposed in Virginia would be another alternative.
The state also could change its existing gas tax structure. Currently, the state takes 35 cents for each gallon of gas sold, whether the gas costs $2 a gallon or $5 per gallon.
"As gas prices go up, people drive less and revenue goes down," Hall said.
He said the state could offset that decrease by changing its flat-rate gas tax to a percentage-based tax. That way, the state would get more money per gallon when gas prices went up.
Hall said no matter how the state raises the money, members of the public need to know their cash is being invested in roads and not "going into a rat hole somewhere."
He said tax increases are never popular, especially in tough economic times, but it's a necessary expenditure.
"Times are going to be a whole lot tougher if we don't maintain the roads," he said. "The public will have to buy in on the fact that roads are deteriorating."
Some attempts to boost road funding have failed in recent years. Last session, lawmakers failed to find the $187 million needed to make a 14.6-mile segment of U.S. 35 into a four-lane road. That project is now effectively dead.