CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A 24-member commission started work Friday on a long-term plan for West Virginia's highways, saying a top-notch road system is critical to the state's economic development.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways -- made up of lawmakers, state and local officials, and industry and labor representatives -- is studying the highway system's condition and needs, and plans to identify funding options.
"Building an appropriate and efficient transportation system is critical to our overall economic development strategy," said Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, a commission member.
West Virginia has more than 36,000 miles of state-maintained roads and 6,850 bridges.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who appointed commission members, said he expects the group to have a "frank discussion" about overhauling the highway system and possibly reorganizing the Division of Highways, which operates out of 10 districts across the state. Each district covers four or five counties.
"They'll look at all options . . . how [the highways division's] districts are organized," Tomblin said. "Maybe we can save some money by being able to realign some of those."
The commission will serve as a "think tank" of sorts, he said.
"You have to do some planning way down the road, and that's what we're asking them to do, to come up with recommendations about how we look down the road, five, 10 or 20 years from now," Tomblin said. "It's going to take time, but it's so important for us to have a plan going forward as far as transportation goes."
The commission plans to meet several times in the coming months and recommend legislation before the start of next year's regular session of the Legislature.
Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said state and federal funding for the highway system -- about $1 billion a year -- has remained stagnant for more than a decade.
At the same time, construction costs -- steel, concrete and asphalt prices -- have increased significantly.
The combination has led to a 30-percent decrease in the state's buying power.