Poor planning led to road mess

While we were all banging and bouncing through potholes this winter, the West Virginia Legislature was cutting the Division of Highways maintenance fund by $50 million. Now, Gov. Jim Justice is poking around the budget in an attempt to find $240 million for secondary road repairs.

Blame bad weather, small-stream flooding and heavy energy industry trucks for most of the road damage during the past couple of years. That’s why Justice is readying his $240 million blitz.

Years ago, DOH workers looked forward to election years. They’d be working lots of overtime and have additional money for maintenance then, because incumbents on the ballot didn’t want voters to be thinking about lousy roads on Election Day. Justice is up for re-election next year.

State budget documents make very interesting reading. Take those for the State Road Fund, which is separate from the General Revenue Fund.

This fiscal year’s road fund totals $1.354 billion. Of that amount, $386.4 million is in the road maintenance line item.

Next year’s road fund budget, for the 12 months beginning July 1, totals $1.384 billion — with just $336.4 million for road maintenance.

But the maintenance line items do not include all the money for, well, road maintenance. According to this year’s spending plan, the DOH has a total of $636.5 for maintenance.

But next year’s budget detail document shows just $585.4 million for the purpose.

Still, both this year and next are improvements over prior years — and that may be part of the current problem. Even the $585.4 million total for next year is much better than the $395 million to $401 million a year in fiscal 2013-18.

What was going through the minds of legislators and Justice when they slashed the maintenance budget?

Hint: Remember the “Roads to Prosperity” program, for which voters in October 2017 approved issuance of $1.6 billion in bonds? Though most of the money was earmarked for new construction, some of it was for repairs many might consider normal maintenance. It may be that Justice and lawmakers decided they could cut the annual budget for maintenance because some of the work would be taken care of by “Roads to Prosperity.”

Now, Justice is talking about taking some money from the bond program to put into his $240 million maintenance initiative. He’d better be very careful: About 600 promises for specific highway projects were made for “Roads to Prosperity.” Cutting them will make voters very unhappy.

Money is only part of the equation for highway maintenance. People do the work. By the way, they work hard. Don’t blame bad roads on the guys with shovels. They’re just doing what DOH higher-ups say they can do.

Budget detail documents contain FTE lines. That translates to full-time equivalent employees.

For fiscal 2013, the DOH had a total of 5,418 employees, with 3,661 assigned to highway maintenance. Then the cuts began. By fiscal 2016, the number of maintenance workers was down to 3,079 — while total DOH employment remained stable, at 5,434.

The next year, fiscal 2017, total FTEs at the DOH dropped to 4,868, with maintenance workers at 3,106. In fiscal 2018, there were just 3,057 maintenance workers

Someone recovered their senses this year (fiscal 2019), boosting the maintenance workforce to 3,609.

But during those three drought years for the DOH maintenance force, how many routine tasks (ditching, berming, etc.) had to be ignored — resulting in what could have been preventable damage to roads? The same point could be made of fiscal 2013-18, when maintenance money remained stagnant, as costs for everything from asphalt to equipment escalated.

For a period, then, fewer DOH workers with inadequate funding were fighting a losing battle against road deterioration. Then, the weather and energy industry trucks became the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We should have seen today’s roads coming years ago.

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

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