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West Virginia highways make slight improvement in Reason rankings

Swank Construction began removing the concrete deck on the eastbound side of the Fulton Bridge spans in February as part of the I-70 Bridges Project. (File Photo)

CHARLESTON — After years of work through the Roads to Prosperity program and a focus on secondary road maintenance, West Virginia moved up slightly in an annual report. Yet, researchers say more needs done.

According to the 26th edition of the Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report, West Virginia ranks 30th in the nation for overall cost-effectiveness and condition based on federal data from 2019 and 2020.

The state’s rank is an improvement from Reason’s 2020 report where West Virginia ranked 33rd, though it still represents a drop from West Virginia’s 2019 ranking of 16th.

The Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank that publishes Reason magazine, released its 26th edition of the Annual Highway Report earlier this month. The report looks at 13 key factors to determine whether states are effectively using tax dollars to build and maintain roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure.

In Reason’s 2021 report, West Virginia ranks 49th for the condition of bridges and has consistently ranked near dead last for structurally deficient bridges in the last three Reason Foundation reports. West Virginia also ranked 45th for rural arterial pavement condition, dropping from 40th in Reason’s 2019 rankings and 41st in 2020.

“To rise in the rankings, West Virginia needs to improve the condition of its pavement and its bridges,” said Baruch Feigenbaum, lead author of the Annual Highway Report and senior managing director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation. “West Virginia is one of only two states where more than 20 percent of the bridges are structurally deficient, which can be a safety concern. West Virginia is one of six states where more than 4 percent of rural arterial pavement is in poor condition. This is a concern because West Virginia has a large percentage of rural arterials.”

According to the report, West Virginia ranks first in the nation for total disbursement per mile. West Virginia has the seventh largest highway system in the country, maintaining all major interstates, federal and state highways, and secondary roads. The state maintains more than 35,000 miles of roads and 7,269 bridges.

“West Virginia shows that it takes more than low costs to earn a high ranking,” the report stated. “The state has the best composite disbursement score. So what’s the problem? Overall the system is in poor shape.”

West Virginia ranks third for capital and bridge disbursements per mile and administrative disbursements per mile, and fifth for maintenance disbursements per mile. According to Feigenbaum, West Virginia spends roughly $20,884 per mile.

“The state’s disbursements rank among the best in the country,” Feigenbaum said. “But the poor quality of the infrastructure suggests West Virginia may need to direct more resources to its highway system.”

West Virginia has attempted to do just that over the last five years. Voters approved the Roads to Prosperity Amendment in 2017, allowing for the issuance of bonds not to exceed $1.6 billion to improve major roads and bridges as well as new road construction.

The state held its third and final bond sale for the Roads to Prosperity program in May. Transportation officials were able to sell $200 million in general obligation bonds at a 2.56 percent interest rate, generating $62.5 million in premiums.

West Virginia has $299 million in GARVEE bonds that were issued in 2017 and 2018, plus $800 million in first-round general obligations bonds issued in 2018 and $166 million in 2018 Parkways Authority bonds. Premiums for these bonds totaled $169 million, bringing the total road bond funding to $1.3 billion. A second round of bonds for $600 million went to market in 2019, generating more than $746.5 million thanks to $146.5 million in premiums.

The premiums from Roads to Prosperity bond sales have gone into secondary road maintenance for existing road projects, as well as the purchase of new highway maintenance vehicles and equipment. According to the state Department of Transportation, 411 projects have been complete through Roads to Prosperity since 2019, equaling more than 438 miles of work. Another 549 projects are ongoing equaling more than 694 miles of work.

Since 2019, Division of Highways personnel have completed more than 1,284 miles of paving projects and have another nearly 730 miles of projects on going. The state has completed 133 bridge projects over the last three years, with 399 bridge projects ongoing.

Despite these funding streams, it still might not be enough. According to a blue ribbon commission appointed by former governor Earl Ray Tomblin, the state needed $750 million annually to make improvements to the existing state highway system, and an additional $380 million annually for expansion. – a total of $1.130 billion not counting the West Virginia Turnpike.

Most of West Virginia’s highway funding comes from federal sources, followed by the State Road Fund which is funded from motor fuel taxes, consumer sales and use taxes on vehicles sales and leases, and vehicle registrations and licensing fees. DOH operating revenues in fiscal year 2020 alone were $1.256 billion, while expenses that year were $1.378 billion.

West Virginia could receive a shot in the arm from the passage of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF). West Virginia is expected to receive as much as $6 billion from BIF over the next five years, including as much as $3 billion for highways projects and $506 million for bridge replacement and repairs over the next five years.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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