Road Fund: Lawmakers must find solution to downturn

With state officials in a quandary over how West Virginia’s secondary roads are going to be maintained in the future, the Department of Transportation may have a more immediate problem.

At the end of January, seven months into the fiscal year, revenue collections to support the State Road Fund continued to run behind estimates — badly. According to the State Budget Office, they were $97.7 million below projections on which the budget was based.

During the first quarter of fiscal 2019, from July through September, State Road Fund revenue appeared to be on track to meet the 12-month estimate of $1.303 billion.

But in October, the bottom fell out and the fund has not recovered yet. At least the bleeding has slowed; January revenue was a relatively small $2.8 million below estimates.

Still, unless the downward trend reverses dramatically, the DOT will be substantially short of funding to support both routine maintenance and new construction planned for this year.

Do not expect Gov. Jim Justice and lawmakers to do much about that during the current legislative session, which ends March 9. They have far too many other things on their plates (including balancing the separate General Revenue Budget for the coming year).

West Virginians have known for years that money flowing into the DOT is not adequate to keep our highways and bridges in decent shape. By some estimates, we are hundreds of millions of dollars a year short of what is needed.

A big part of the problem is that income from gasoline and diesel fuel taxes has not kept pace with higher costs for road repair and construction, we are told. More fuel-efficient cars mean people aren’t having to pump as much into their tanks and thus, revenue from the per-gallon tax is lagging.

But in dollars, it is not. The fiscal 2009 State Road Fund budget included $380 million from fuel taxes. This year’s budget has nearly $444 million from that source — and, in contrast to other line items, that revenue source is ahead of projections.

Clearly, something is wrong, however. A deficit of nearly $100 million is serious business. Justice and legislators should be looking at long-term measures to keep the State Road Fund adequate to do its job.