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Planners for W.Va. highways start down the road of ideas

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.

Mattox said an increase in fuel-efficient vehicles has led to a decline in gasoline excise taxes that fund highway construction and repair.

"Our funds have been stagnant, while our cost of doing business has increased every year," he said.

Fred Burns Jr., a commission member representing the trucking industry, said truckers would be willing to consider higher fuel taxes.

"So long as they're fair and all money goes to highways, not special projects," said Burns, president of Burns Motor Freight.

Gary Facemyer of the American Council of Engineering Companies said the commission also must look for ways to make highways safer.

Last year, a national transportation research group found that 36 percent of West Virginia's roads were in poor or mediocre condition.

"We need to have a safe highway system," Facemyer said. "That will come about by being a well-designed and well-constructed system."

Several commission members urged the group to examine what other states are doing to improve and pay for roads.

"We don't necessarily need to reinvent the wheel," said Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia. "Maybe, we can bring a new wheel into the state."

The commission will next meet Oct. 19 at the state Capitol. The group has established several committees that will conduct public hearings across the state.

Tomblin said he expects the commission to continue to meet after the next legislative session ends.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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