CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Cutting federal funds spent to maintain West Virginia transportation infrastructure -- including highways, bridges and railroads -- could be disastrous, state and federal officials say.
Leaders including Rep. Nick Rahall, state Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox, and the head of a state contractors association say a Republican plan to reduce the funding would cost construction jobs and threaten West Virginia's infrastructure.
Rahall, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that under current Republican-backed budget proposals, "more than 877,000 high-skilled, good-paying jobs could be possibly eliminated over the next 10 years."
"It is something we simply cannot afford to allow to continue," Rahall said during a telephone interview last week. "It is a very disturbing picture of how West Virginia small businesses, middle-class family incomes and safety could be affected if we fail to increase investment in our surface transportation programs."
Republican leaders on the committee say their plan is a fiscally responsible proposal that would sustain the Highway Trust Fund without tax hikes.
The plan calls for a reduction of 33 percent from current funding levels over the next six years, Rahall said.
"That would be the first time in the history of our interstate program that cuts would be made, if this proposed legislation were to go forward," he said.
The interstate highways program began when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954. Today, many major highways are more than 50 years old and railroad lines are often much older than that.
Mattox said the state uses federal funds to maintain 27 percent of its state roads.
"We have the sixth largest state-maintained highway system in the country, a little over 36,000 miles of highway," he said. "All of our major highway construction is dependent on federal highway dollars."
He added, "We are not talking about building new highways, but about trying to take care of the existing system so our roads remain safe."
The state relies on federal funds for resurfacing, bridge replacement and highway improvement projects, such as Corridor H, U.S. 35 in Mason and Putnam counties, W.Va. 9 in the Eastern Panhandle, W.Va. 10 in Logan County and the King Coal Highway, Mattox said.
The Republican-backed legislation "would mean a loss of $145 million in annual federal highway dollars, which translates into 4,900 construction jobs," Mattox said.
The federal Highway Trust Fund, Mattox pointed out, is largely funded by the 18.4 cents a gallon federal fuel tax, which has not increased since 1993, when gas was much cheaper.
"Recently, the government had to use General Revenue Fund money to help us," he said.
If only federal fuel taxes were used to finance the Highway Trust Fund today, federal highway funds would drop by 35 percent.
House Transportation Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has said the Republican proposal protects the Highway Trust Fund.
"Last year, we spent about $50 billion from the trust fund but collected only $35 billion in revenue," he wrote in a recent op-ed in the Washington, D.C. newspaper Roll Call. "Consistent overspending has necessitated the transfer of $35 billion from the general fund into the trust fund over the past three years."
The state's annual federal transportation funding would drop from $453 million to $313 million under the Republican plan, said Michael Clowser, executive director of the Contractors Association of West Virginia.
Federal highways legislation is typically approved for six-year periods. Over that time period, West Virginia would receive $843 million less in federal highway funding.
Federal funds for other infrastructure projects -- such as sewer construction and drinking water systems -- would also suffer under the proposed legislation, Clowser said.
He pointed to a recent report prepared by the Associated General Contractors of America about the ongoing downturn in construction projects.
Nationally, the construction industry's unemployment rate is 18.8 percent -- roughly double the overall national unemployment rate, the report says.
Construction employment in West Virginia dropped from 32,700 in June 2010 to about 31,000 today, a 4.3 percent decrease.
"Our industry is very much in a recession," Clowser said. "And based on what is going on in Washington, we don't see a lot of positive movement for 2012."
Modern water and sewer systems encourage businesses to move into an area and expand. Clowser said good-paying construction jobs -- on roads, water projects and sewers -- are central to "future economic development."
"If we don't increase these jobs, the economy will not get any better in the foreseeable future," he said.
Rahall said he believes some federal spending should be cut.
"Addressing our deficit is a vital need," he said. "But allowing our infrastructure deficit to continue to spiral downward will cost current and future generations much more."
He said many Republicans have a "slash-burn-and-destroy philosophy" on the federal debt limit and transportation funding.
"That is what is running the Republican majority in the House of Representatives," he said. "There are good Republicans who believe in infrastructure spending. Unfortunately, they are not ruling the day."
Rahall believes attitudes toward the tea party and similar factions are changing.
"We now find the Chamber of Commerce, and most of the business community who supported these factions, urging them to compromise," he said. "But many of them still refuse to listen to the word 'compromise.'"
The American Society of Civil Engineering recently published "Failure to Act," a study about the state of the nation's surface transportation infrastructure.
Current deficiencies cost American households and businesses nearly $130 billion a year, including extra costs to operate and maintain vehicles, travel time delays and environmental costs, according to the report.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjny...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.