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W.Va. drops in highway study

Photo Courtesy/WV Governor’s Office Gov. Jim Justice sits atop a paving machine while on an inspection in Wood County in October.

CHARLESTON — An annual report reviewing the performance of highways systems in all 50 states showed that West Virginia dropped 17 places due to increased road fatalities and the condition of bridges, though the state’s rankings could improve by next year.

The Reason Foundation’s 25th Annual Highway Report ranked West Virginia 33rd in the nation for performance and cost-effectiveness, down from 16th in last year’s report. The report is based on 2018 data submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as third-party sources.

Of our surrounding states, only Pennsylvania and Maryland scored worse on the Reason report, ranking 39 and 41 respectively. Kentucky ranked 4th, Ohio ranked 13th, and Virginia ranked 21st.

According to the report, West Virginia dropped in rank due to a decrease in total disbursements per mile. The state ranked 43rd for capital disbursements per mile and 36th for bridge disbursements per mile. West Virginia also ranked 46th for the state’s overall highway fatality rate and 49th due to the state’s structurally deficient bridges.

While the state ranked 10th in traffic congestion due to West Virginia’s rural environment, it also ranked 30th for the condition of urban interstate pavement and 39th for rural interstate pavement. The state also ranked 38th for the total spending per mile on highways and 46th for capital and bridge costs per mile.

“To improve in the rankings, West Virginia needs to reduce its percentage of structurally deficient bridges, its overall fatality rate, and its capital and bridge spending,” said Baruch Feigenbaum, lead author of the report and senior managing director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation. “The state is in the bottom five for structurally deficient bridges, overall fatality rate, and capital and bridge disbursements per mile.”

It’s possible by next year’s Reason report, West Virginia could improve its standing in the rankings due to highway projects though the Roads to Prosperity program currently under construction or proposed, as well as a greater focus on secondary road maintenance.

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. According to the state Department of Transportation, 811 Roads to Prosperity projects totaling approximately $489.9 million and equaling nearly 1,543 miles have been completed since October – three years since the Roads to Prosperity Amendment was approved.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time and we’re not finished by a long shot,” said Gov. Jim Justice in a statement celebrating the third anniversary of the Roads to Prosperity program. “We’re going to continue improving our transportation network, which is going to allow us to bring more people and businesses into our great state for years to come; not to mention all of the jobs that the construction work is providing.”

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 total $169 million, bringing the total road bond funding to $1.3 billion. A second round of bonds for $600 million went to market last November, generating more than $746.5 million thanks to $146.5 million in premiums.

The premiums from both Roads to Prosperity bond sales have gone into secondary road maintenance for existing road projects. The state purchased brand new dump trucks, tandem steamrollers, Roadtec paving machines, Gradall excavators for clearing ditches, highway mowers, and other needed equipment. By last Fall, nearly 280 pieces of maintenance equipment and vehicles were distributed between the Department of Transportation’s 10 districts.

According to the Department of Transportation, state road crews have completed more than 442.6 miles for 277 paving projects, with 201.7 miles of projects ongoing as of Nov. 24. Between ditching, patching, stabilization, and other core maintenance projects, highways workers have completed 25,984 projects totaling 34,315.7 miles.

The Reason Foundation is a libertarian-leaning think tank based in Los Angeles, Calif.

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