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Political willpower problem

In Washington, everyone knows the national debt is a disaster, at $22.6 trillion and growing by leaps and bounds. No one seems capable of building a bipartisan consensus to do anything about it, however.

We have an equivalent here in West Virginia: the State Road Fund. Both it and the national debt are problems of political willpower, even though there is a stark difference: The national debt is because politicians in Washington are spending too much. Their counterparts in Charleston aren’t spending enough on roads and bridges.

With an election year coming up, there’s been a break in that pattern. Earlier this year, Gov. Jim Justice had heard so many complaints about secondary roads that he launched a crash campaign to repair as many as possible.

Legislators helped by allocating about $100 million in surplus funds left over from fiscal 2019. Another $30 million to $40 million was found elsewhere in the budget.

With that “found money,” the Division of Highways has accomplished a lot. To DOH officials’ credit, they seem to be doing the work properly. That is, they’re not just repaving roads, they’re doing preventive maintenance such as ditching and culvert work to keep the highways from going bad within a year or two.

But even that huge infusion of money, along with the $336 million in State Road Fund appropriations earmarked for maintenance, won’t accomplish everything that needs to be done.

What about next year, when secondary roads will require more maintenance — more, probably, than can be covered in what legislators are likely to appropriate for fiscal 2021?

That $140 million or so Justice and lawmakers scraped up for supplemental work this year won’t be available next spring. At the end of August, two months into fiscal 2020, collections for the General Revenue Fund were nearly $50 million behind projections. Those for the State Road Fund lagged by $37.6 million. If anything, cuts may be on the horizon.

About six years ago, a special panel, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, studied the problem. Its report concluded — remember, in 2013 — that the state needed $750 million more every year to maintain roads and bridges adequately.

At the time, the State Road Budget was $1.155 billion. It’s only $1.384 billion now. That’s barely enough to keep up with inflation, much less to do what the Blue Ribbon Commission said needed to be done.

Well, what about Roads to Prosperity? Did we Mountain State voters (73% of us) approve a $1.6 billion bond issue for nothing?

No. But that money, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding, is being used for new highways and really big repair projects such as the $211 million to repair and replace Interstate 70 bridges in Ohio County. It’s not secondary road maintenance money.

So what on earth can we do?

Legislators already increased the fuel tax, to 35.7 cents per gallon, a few years ago. Only one adjoining state, Pennsylvania, is higher (though it needs to be noted the Keystone State folks swallowed hard and made their tax, at around 58.7 cents per gallon, the second-highest in the nation because they recognized they had to do something about road funding).

We buy about 840 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel a year in West Virginia, so each 10-cent increase in the tax should bring in around $84 million more a year. That isn’t enough. Even matching Pennsylvania would gain only about $190 million annually (less, actually, because of folks in the border counties crossing state lines to save $4 or more per fill-up).

Unless we experience some miraculous improvement in the economy (Silcon Valley East, anyone?), we can’t expect state revenue to pick up much. That leaves only setting priorities to reduce spending for other things, leaving more money for roads.

Lots of luck with that. Ask your local member of Congress how well spending cuts go over in a room full of politicians.

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

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