Highways program not exactly good news

If you think the roads in West Virginia are bad now, you may not have seen anything yet.

State Department of Transportation officials have released a draft of a report they’re required to file with the federal government. It is called the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP. It covers West Virginia DOT plans for the next five years — and it is nearly 100 pages of mostly depressing reading.

A few charts are the STIP report’s headlines:

* One table shows the state’s forecast for State Road Fund revenue from state sources including fuel and sales tax and registration fees. During fiscal 2018, the state pulled in $849.6 million from those charges. The estimate for fiscal 2024 is just $837.6 million.

* That’s bad enough, but it doesn’t take inflation into account. From the cost of asphalt to what it takes to buy a new dump truck, prices the DOT must pay keep going up and up.

The STIP report uses inflation estimates to calculate real buying power. Again, the $849.6 million in actual state revenue for fiscal 2018 is compared to the outlook for fiscal 2024 –when state road revenue is expected to have about $623.6 million in actual maintenance and construction value. Yes, your math is correct: That’s about one-fourth less than we have now.

* You don’t have to be told that the Division of Highways has been struggling. As the STIP report puts it, “in order to remain fiscally sound, the agency has been forced to reduce services and the amount of work being done.”

* West Virginia receives a significant amount of federal funding for highways. But the level has remained roughly the same during the past decade. The State Road Fund budget for fiscal 2009 showed $485.7 million in federal and Appalachian regional funding. Fiscal 2020, starting July 1, budgets only $470 million from those sources.

* And the feds are slow payers. By this point in the current fiscal year, the State Road Fund was supposed to have received nearly $300 million from Washington. Less than $258 million had actually arrived.

What to do about this mess? Increasing the state taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, expected to bring in $443.9 million this year, isn’t a very good option. Our tax on gasoline, at 35.7 cents per gallon, is roughly competitive with Ohio’s new rate of 38.5 cents. Maryland’s rate is about the same; Kentucky and Virginia are substantially lower. Only Pennsylvania, at 57.6 cents, is much higher. By my calculation, jacking our fuel tax up to the Keystone rate would bring in about $230 million more a year — if motorists kept filling up in our state. Many wouldn’t. They’d make the short hop to Ohio, Maryland, Virginia or Kentucky to buy cheaper fuel, and our revenue would suffer.

* I’ve saved the worst for last. Bear in mind that the STIP primarily involves federal highways and projects, not the tens of thousands of miles of state secondary roads. The revenue numbers above do include funding for secondary road maintenance, however.

That said, one chart in the report is a “summary of performance measures and targets.” One of those lines is for the percentage of pavement in good condition on non-interstate federal highways in West Virginia (U.S. 40, 50 and other federally designated roads).

The STIP report shows that in that highway category, the baseline as of Sept. 30 was 57.1 percent of pavement in good condition. The target –what state officials hope can be done — for the next four years is 45 percent. The two-year target is even worse, at 40 percent.

In other words, the best we can hope for is to hold the rate of deterioration down — not to see better roads.

Here’s an idea: Just about any time anyone looks closely into how state government, from the state Supreme Court to the federally funded flood relief program, spends money, lots of waste and inefficiency comes to light. Perhaps we ought to put the Division of Highways under a microscope.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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