Governor announces road funds
CHARLESTON — Despite concerns raised over the last few months, Gov. Jim Justice plans to use multiple sources of funds, including Roads to Prosperity bond funds, to repair the state’s crumbling secondary road system.
Justice made the announcement Wednesday morning during a press conference at the Capitol in Charleston.
“We’re going to get back to the basics,” Justice said. “The Department of Highways is at its core a maintenance organization, and maintenance will be our first priority.”
According to Justice and revenue officials, the state plans to take a portion of the $913 million from the first round of general obligation bonds from the Roads to Prosperity program. The state took out $800 million in general obligation bonds last year, increasing to $913 million due to better-than-expect rates.
Of the amount, $236 million is already under contract for five large road construction contracts. Officials hope they can use some of the remaining bond funds by redesigning pending projects to save money and accepting bids for projects that come in underneath projected costs.
“We want to go through as best as we possibly can do every one of the projects, but skinny them down from the stand point that we do not expand the scope…and glean off dollars,” Justice said.
Justice said he doesn’t expect to glean hundreds of millions of dollars from the bond monies. He wants to couple those dollars with pay-as-you-go funding generated by the increased fuel taxes and Division of Motor Vehicles fees passed a few years ago to pay the debt service for future Roads to Prosperity bonds.
“We have earmarked taxes to pay debt service, but we don’t have the debt service yet because we’ve not put out the bonds,” Justice said. “We can take that money and put it toward core maintenance.”
Justice also wants to use surplus tax revenue available at the end of fiscal year 2019 which ends in June. While Justice and Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy couldn’t put a firm number on how much funding could be available, Justice said they would be mindful.
“We’re going to find the most fiscally responsible way to fund our secondary road work,” Justice said.
During his State of the State address on Jan. 9, Justice proposed taking road bond money for secondary maintenance. Since then, members of both the Senate and House of Delegates have raised concerns about using bond money meant for major infrastructure projects.
Hardy said he has been in contact with bond agencies, though didn’t say where they stood.
“We’ve had conversations with our bond counsel…and our financial advisers,” Hardy said. “We have consulted and we will continue to consult. We will continue to make sure they’re on board with any plan we plan to make.
A number of lawmakers were in attendance Wednesday, including senators and delegates representing Preston County which declared an emergency for the condition of their roads. State Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, said he was pleased with parts of Justice’s plan the resembled Senate Bill 522 which passed on the last night of session.
Still, he was concerned with diverting road bond money.
“I just don’t think it’s good to take money from the actual bond,” Smith said. “The people of West Virginia were sold on that roads bond for new bridges, finished highways, and stuff like that.”
Justice said the secondary road problems go back to then-Gov. Joe Manchin, who sold off road maintenance equipment, and former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who dealt with a downturn in the economy and decreased tax collections for road maintenance.
“This all happened before little Jimmy came to town,” Justice said. “We starved ourselves. We absolutely sold equipment that could have been doing maintenance in the counties. We starved our crews tee-totally to death. Then we wondered what happened to our roads.”
Justice said he expects the Division of Highways to start hiring temporary workers to work on the secondary roads projects.
“I told the people of this state that we were going to fix the (expletive deleted) roads,” Justice said. “That’s exactly what we told them. I haven’t changed my philosophy in any way, shape, form or fashion. That’s what we’re going to do.”