W.Va. lawmakers seek highway funding

CHARLESTON – Transportation in the Eastern Panhandle has been a headache that the Legislature hopes to alleviate.

This session, West Virginia legislators will seek ways to come up with funding for the state’s highway infrastructure, said Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, chairman of the West Virginia Senate Transportation Committee, in a panel discussion on transportation Monday. Beach said he suggested officials try to come up with funding at the local level.

“I would go to the home-rule aspect of allowing communities to determine the direction they would like to see with transportation,” Beach said. “All of the legislators like to keep an open-door policy so members of the community can share their ideas.”

Areas with transportation issues, such as Morgantown, are introducing a bill to the county commission that would give local government authority to fund transportation problems, Beach said. Morgantown wants to create a home-rule package and go through a process detailing plans and how the municipality would pay for the roads, Beach said.

“If local counties take this initiative on, it relieves some of the pressure that is on the Department of Highways,” Beach said. “Does it set a precedent? Not necessarily because the piece of legislation does not deal exclusively with roads.”

Panel moderator Heather Goodwin Henline, publisher of The (Elkins) Inter-Mountain, said there has been a physical and political disconnect between the central part of the state and outlying areas such as southern West Virginia and the Eastern Panhandle.

“The transportation issues are unique to those different sectors,” Henline said. “There doesn’t seem to be connecting roads that make transportation easy such as getting from Martinsburg to Charleston.”

Beach said West Virginia is not working with Virginia or Maryland on a project to ease congestion on U.S. 340, which West Virginians use to commute.

West Virginia will continue to work with Maryland to ensure there is no reduction in MARC train service for commuters.

“The Maryland Department of Transportation provides a service to us that really they don’t have to,” Beach said. “In West Virginia, our problem is that we don’t have a whole lot to bring to the table as far as subsidies and more transit or better service. They have been very willing to work with us.”

Across that state, the DOH will no longer split the funding used for repair work and construction of new road. Instead, the agency will allocate 70 percent to maintenance and 30 percent to building new roadways, which will not affect construction of the Corridor H.

Corridor H will allow for more convenient access to other parts of the state and increase revenue for the state.

Beach said legislators will try to find funding for road repair and construction as well as educating citizens about how tax dollars are used in the process.

West Virginia maintains the sixth largest highway system in the nation. The cost to bring roads up to par is about $1 billion, said Randolph County Commissioner Mike Taylor of the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Highway Commission.

In some counties, most of the funding comes from the motor fuel tax, which is decreasing. The commission suggests an increase in tolls in the southern portion of the state; Department of Motor Vehicles fees; increase sales tax on automobile repairs; and selling road bonds.

Citizens across the state agree to paying certain increased fees, said Taylor.

“By and large, one of the biggest things – according to a survey – was an increase in the fuel tax,” he said. “This is one of the biggest things that we have to try to somehow overcome.”

Taylor said they are seeking local funding as federal and state funds decrease; there will have to be some sort of tax increase, he said.

“That would vary greatly from county to county,” Taylor said. “Some counties are more financially stable than other counties. … You’re going to have to raise the rates on property taxes or add a sales tax or something like that. It’s up to the people.”

Taylor said there was also a general consensus that handling roadway conditions was needed to get to work; take children to and from school; and to create a vibrant community.

“People realize the importance of highways and what a critical role that they play,” Taylor said. “(The state) just needs to come up with some innovative ideas of how we are going to accomplish this mission. It’s going to have to be done, or the consequences will be catastrophic.”