Some Roads to Prosperity projects at risk as Justice pushes secondary road efforts
CHARLESTON — When Gov. Jim Justice on Jan. 9 addressed a room full of lawmakers for the annual State of the State address, attendees knew he would talk about the Roads to Prosperity as an accomplishment.
Instead, just over half way through his speech, Justice told lawmakers of a new initiative.
“We have got to shift a little bit of the focus,” Justice said. “We’ve got to pull some of the money out of the bigger projects and move some of the money, or significantly more money, over to fix more of our secondary roads.”
The statement got applause from the attendees, but as the night turned to day, it left lawmakers wondering what the plan was and — more importantly — what Roads to Prosperity projects were going to be scaled back to pay for Justice’s secondary roads plan.
Details are nearly non-existent, with Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Smith telling some lawmakers last week that a full plan will be rolled out for the Legislature soon. Requests for comment from the Department of Transportation and the governor’s office were not returned.
PAVING THE WAY
The West Virginia Legislature passed the Roads to Prosperity Amendment in April of 2017. On Oct. 7, 2017, the bond was put to the public for a vote. With nearly 11 percent voter turnout, the constitutional amendment giving the Legislature authority to sell up to $1.6 billion in general obligation bonds for major road and bridge projects across the state passed with 73 percent of the vote.
Additionally, Roads to Prosperity is funded through bonds paid for by increased tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike, which in turn will fund road projects in 10 southern West Virginia counties. Legislation passed in 2017 also gave the state the authority to increase the amount of Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle Bonds that state can incur from $200 million to $500 million.
As of September, $200 million has been spent to complete 250 smaller projects. The larger projects vary in cost and scope, with a $47 million widening project for I-81 in Berkeley County, $146 million for multiple projects to widen Route 2 to four lanes, and $172 million for 26 bridge rehabilitation and renovations projects on I-70 in Ohio County.
It’s the I-70 project that is at a standstill. In August, the Department of Transportation rejected the bids for the I-70 project, which was originally estimated to cost $201 million, but the lowest bid came in at $275 million. Citing inflation and the tariffs on Chinese goods put in place by President Donald Trump, the project was sent back to the drawing board and reduced in scope.
During his State of the State, Justice told lawmakers that using the bond money for projects not contemplated when the bond amendment was approved and when the bonds were sold was not an issue.
“We have had extensive discussions with the bond holders and everything, that we can do this,” Justice said.
Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, is the president of the Wheeling Area chamber of Commerce. Both as a legislator and as someone whose job it is to help create an environment where businesses choose to develop, Storch said taking funding from the I-70 project for secondary road projects would delay much needed repairs.
“The problem with that is while it looks like a big pot and an easy thing to take monies away from, those 26 bridges need the attention,” Storch said. “Obviously all of our roads are in dire need, but I-70 is huge for the amount of traffic that goes through there.
According to Storch, I-70 sees as many as 45,000 cars travel back and forth on the stretch between the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders per day.
“At that level of traffic, we have to be diligent with providing the safest roads possible for our residents, my constituents, my family to drive on, as well as my friends and my friends’ families and those traveling through this state,” Storch said.
Lawmakers are stay awaiting the specifics on how the Department of Transportation plans to divert bond money away, but Storch questions whether it can.
“Can that money be diverted to other secondary roads? I’ve never really gotten a good answer on that,” Storch said.
LAWMAKERS AT WORK
State Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, is a former chairman and a current member of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. According to Beach, lawmakers were told that bond markets prefer states use bonds for major projects, not maintenance projects.
“I’m adamantly opposed to taking and moving that bond money anywhere other than those specified roads projects,” Beach said. “The people who purchased those bonds purchased them with the understanding it was for new projects and not for maintenance. We probably wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance of passing bond legislation or selling the bonds if it was for maintenance. When it’s for new projects, that’s a big difference.”
At the request of Beach and other lawmakers, the Legislative Auditor’s Office released a report Jan. 7 detailing how the Division of Highways districts 4 and 5 — which includes combined stretches from Doddridge County in the West to Jefferson County in the East — spend their maintenance dollars.
According to the report, the two district offices are supposed to spend 70 percent of the money they received on road maintenance, only two out of the 13 counties in districts 4 and 5 hit that goal between 2009 and 2017. Beach said the Division of Highways office in Monongalia County, which is one of the state’s fastest growing counties for population, is operating with 40 employees. That’s down from 60 employees.
“The audit is showing that even though it’s suggested that they used 70 percent, they’re only spending 50 percent in most counties,” Beach. “That’s far shorter than what we need in those districts.”
Another audit, conducted on behalf of the Legislature by Deloitte in 2016, found that the Division of Highways consistently had unused funds. In 2013, the Division of Highways had 8 percent of funding going unused, or $93 million. In 2015, that grew to 13.6 percent of funding, $158 million, going unused.
Beach said much of the problem of unspent funds is due to a lack of labor. Some of this is due to what the Division of Highways pays its employees, many of whom quit to work in the state’s growing oil and natural gas industry. The other issue is the hiring practices that are placed on the Division of Highways.
“Right now, current policy is to interview, and those applicants they like have to be sent to Charleston for review, then back to the district garage, then back to the local garage,” Beach said. “It’s not efficient at all, three weeks have passed, and these people have probably found another job and you start all over again.”
Beach said he plans to introduce legislation to make reforms in the Division of Highways to help improve hiring practices. Another possible piece of legislation allowing the county garages to hire they staff they need could return. Similar legislation passed in 2014, but was vetoed by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. On the House side, legislation is being drafted to increase Division of Highways pay by $3.
But until Justice reveals his secondary roads plan, lawmakers are left to spin their wheels.