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West Virginians want improved highways

Members of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways are holding public meetings across the state, seeking input on how to fund more road work. The state needs to spend more money not just to maintain but to improve roads and bridges.

The advent of more fuel-efficient vehicles has made gasoline taxes, the traditional funding base, inadequate.

West Virginians would readily agree that the need is there, but the would-be spenders and the would-be payers part company pretty quickly after that.

The state Division of Highways now spends $709.3 million a year for construction and maintenance, but a study said an additional $627 million a year is needed just to maintain current conditions.

The division says it would take $847.7 million a year more to bring all roads up to engineering standards.

"We've got to come up with the money someplace, and the public is the only place that can cough the money up," commissioner Jan Vineyard said in May.

Republican Delegates Larry Kump and Michael Folk of Berkeley County challenged that approach after a meeting in their area. They told Mannix Porterfield of the Register-Herald in Beckley that the commission has packed the audiences with people who stand to benefit from road building, and that focus groups rely on leading questions to encourage people to support higher taxes - a lot higher.

Backers have suggested at least $419 million a year in tax increases:

* Raising the consumer sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to raise $200 million a year.

* Increasing the vehicle sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent to raise $37.2 million a year (adding $300 to the price of a $30,000 car.

* Raising Division of Motor Vehicles fees to generate another $69.4 million a year.

* Finding an additional $250 million a year somewhere else.

Kump said he wants to see greater efficiency in the highways department to free up more money. Folk said the state could benefit from regulatory and legal reforms, a downsizing of government, and a more accurate determining of prevailing wage rates.

These delegates gauge the public mood accurately.

Of course West Virginians want better roads. But many will want the state to show hundreds of millions in savings before it asks people who are 47th in per capita income to part with hundreds of millions a year out of their household budgets.

The conversation would proceed more smoothly from that starting point.

 


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