Road repair funds in doubt

ELKINS – Pot hole repairs, bridge replacements, culvert work and roadway paving are normal sights along Randolph County roads during the summer season. That could all change in coming weeks unless the U.S. House and Senate can reach agreement on new sources of revenue for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund.

The HTF, funded primarily by an 18.4 cents per gallon tax on gasoline and a 24.4 cents per gallon tax on diesel fuel, is the money tank that pays for much of the road construction and repair projects in West Virginia. The tank is running on fumes and is expected to be empty in just a few weeks.

When the balance in the Highway Account of the HTF drops below $1 billion, possibly as early as Aug. 1, federal payments to the state could be reduced and delayed. Carrie Bly, spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Transportation, said the department has been working since the spring to develop contingency plans.

“While the cost of repairs and construction is up, available funding is unchanged,” Bly said, noting everything won’t come to a halt if the fund dries up.

Money will come in slower and in smaller amounts. When that happens, we will look at all projects and prioritize them by necessity.”

Bly said the awarding of contracts could be affected as well as payments to contractors.

“We are working with the contractors to find solutions,” Bly said. “It might be in the form of delayed or reduced payments. Some contractors may choose to stop work if they feel they can’t continue without the federal money part of the contract.”

A report issued this week by TRIP, a national non-profit transportation research group based in Washington, D.C., found that rural roads and bridges in West Virginia have significant deficiencies. The report, “Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America’s Heartland,” ranked West Virginia third in the nation with 33 percent of its rural roads rated in poor condition in 2012.

“A modern, well-maintained West Virginia transportation system is of vital importance to the state’s economy,” said Carol Fulks, chairperson of West Virginians for Better Transportation. “Motorists expect and deserve safe, well-maintained roads and bridges no matter if they are traveling on the Interstate or rural roads.”

The TRIP report found that traffic crashes and fatalities on rural roads in the state are significantly higher than on other roads in the state. In 2012, non-Interstate rural roads in West Virginia had a traffic fatality rate of 2.8 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel, the number three rate in the nation.

Bi-Partisan Support in Congress

Both House of Representatives and Senate committees have passed packages to extend funding for the HTF into the spring of 2015. Both packages include a mechanism used in 2012 to pay for the most recent two-year highway bill.

Known as “pension smoothing,” employers would be allowed to delay contributions to employee pension plans. Because these contributions are tax-deductible, delaying the contributions would raise the companies’ taxable income and would thus increase revenue to the Treasury.

A willingness to turn to pension smoothing in the past explains why lawmakers see it as a quick answer to an immediate, temporary budget problem. Some members of Congress, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., want to designate a portion of any revenues that come from pension smoothing to help shore up health and pension benefits for coal miners.

Some Republicans, however, have objected. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), through a spokesman, said he “does not believe extraneous issues should come into play. Congress does not need another showdown when there is a viable solution.”

Both chambers will have a number of issues to resolve including the duration of the funding patch, and revenue sources beyond the pension smoothing.

While there is bi-partisan support and agreement on resolving the current funding shortfall, members on both sides of the aisle also agree that a long-term solution must be found.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said, “As governor and as senator, infrastructure investment, transportation safety, and projects like Corridor H have been top priorities. However, these priorities require steady and predictable federal funding. We simply can’t keep kicking the can down the road. We need a permanent, sustainable solution to the crisis facing the Highway Trust Fund.”

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said, “I am committed to investing in our national highway infrastructure and addressing the shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund. I am working with the chairmen of the Transportation Committee, the House Ways & Means Committee and Speaker (John) Boehner to find a solution to this critical problem before the July deadline. Highway investment is crucial to West Virginia, and I will fight for an agreement that shores up the trust fund and preserves our highways.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin co-signed a National Governors Association letter urging Congress to resolve the federal Highway Trust Fund shortfall.

“Strengthening our infrastructure needs is critical to ensuring West Virginia can continue to recruit new economic development opportunities and maintain our competitiveness in today’s global market,” Tomlin said. “While we continue to make tough decisions to identify and apply new approaches to fund our state’s infrastructure improvements, we must have a reliable federal partner to support those projects.”

W.Va. Highway System is Unique

Both Randolph County House of Delegates members Bill Hartman and Denise Campbell called West Virginia unique among the states. Hartman, a Democrat, said that unlike other states, West Virginia maintains all roads except city streets. There is no county road maintenance.

Both delegates also cited the weather this past winter as a major cause of much of the area’s road maintenance needs. Campbell, also a Democrat, said the ice and snow caused the roadways to decay faster. Hartman credited Department of Highways workers with doing a “Herculean job” on the roads already this year.

Hartman said there is not much enthusiasm, in the public or the Legislature, for raising the gas tax, but added “eventually we are going to have to bite the bullet.” Campbell agreed, saying that with gasoline prices already so high, an increase in the gas tax would add an extra burden to the people of the state.

Campbell noted, “As members of the Legislature, we will do whatever we can to take care of the roads.”

Campbell and Hartman both pointed to the need for the federal government to be a responsible partner with the state. She said Congress needs to act and urged all citizens to contact their representatives in Washington to let them know they need to step up and work to resolve this revenue shortfall and to find a long-term source of revenue.