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Statehouse beat: Nobody wants to pay for good roads

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Co-quote of the week No. 1: "The numbers don't seem to be in question. We have bad news here, but accurate bad news" -- David Satterfield former Development Office director, and citizen member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways.

Co-quote of the week No. 2: "Tolling is the best way to get non-West Virginians to pay for our infrastructure." -- Commission member and Marshall professor Andrew Nichols.

There's no bigger disconnect in state government than roads and highways. Everybody wants good roads, but nobody wants to pay for them.

The assessment by outside engineering consultants that the state needs to raise an additional $400 million a year to keep existing roads and bridges from deteriorating, and as much as $1.3 billion a year to build and maintain the road system the state needs was met with immediate blow-back.

While some may argue about whether those numbers could be reduced through efficiencies or eliminating the prevailing wage law, the bottom line is we are a small state with a lot of roads to maintain, with no county road system to help offset costs, and with the additional burden of having to build and maintain roads in challenging terrain.

West Virginia is not alone. At least 20 states are looking at ways to raise revenue to fund road and bridge projects, since the primary source of road funding, the gas tax, is being annihilated by the proliferation of high-mileage and alternate fuel vehicles.

While the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission is admirable, the history of the Legislature is that it will not enact tax hikes of this scale, or consider options like extending and expanding toll roads in the state, until the situation reaches a crisis, as last occurred in 1989.

***

Speaking of the Legislature, my initial headcount on Democratic caucus on the speaker's race has Harry Keith White, 23, Tim Miley, 20, and 10 that I couldn't put into either camp at the moment.

White clearly will be backed by business groups, and Miley by labor organizations, and those groups will try to sway delegates, with the knowledge an election cycle is only a year away.

Unfortunately, a whisper campaign is already underway to try to link White to rumored federal investigations of alleged election law violations by the Team Mingo faction.

Never mind that White ran unopposed in the 2008 and 2010 primaries and had only token opposition in 2012, and has thus been able to stay above the fray of Mingo County politics.

Ultimately, the race could come down to a coalition of moderate Democrats who late last week declared themselves to be uncommitted.

That includes Delegates Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh, Dave Perry, D-Fayette, John Pino, D-Fayette, Peggy Donaldson Smith, D-Lewis, Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, David Walker, D-Clay, and Larry Williams, D-Preston.

Miley has told delegates he wants to maintain the current leadership structure, while White has bargaining leverage by opening up chairmanships and leadership positions.

White can also make the argument that he would have the better chance of maintaining détente with the 46 House Republicans next session.

***

Speaking of roads and bridges, by remarkable coincidence, Kent Myers stopped by the afternoon after the Highways Commission meeting to show some pictures he'd taken of the Philippi covered bridge.

He noted the pictures show where pieces of the wooden structure are deteriorated, rotted or are missing entirely. One of the pictures showed where the wood had completely deteriorated around a large steel bolt.

Normally, I wouldn't necessarily give much attention to a guy walking in raising concerns about the bridge -- except that Myers is a structural engineer and owner of Kent Engineering.

I referred Myers to Brent Walker in the Department of Transportation, who said he subsequently forwarded Myers' pictures and concerns to Highways engineers.

While the damage might be entirely aesthetic at this point, Walker said exposing the interior structure of the bridge to the elements cannot be good.

"Water is never anybody's friend, except for a dog maybe," Walker said.

The other coincidence was that, while Myers grew up on Duffy Street about where the Culture Center is now located, he's lived and worked for about the past 40 years in Norman, Okla., and he and his wife just happened to be visiting family in the state last week.

***

Finally, caps off to the West Virginia University baseball team. Going into the Big 12, I figured football would have some growing pains, basketball would be immediately competitive ... and the baseball team would get absolutely crushed.

However, the WVU nine not only proved to be competitive, and proved they could draw large crowds in Charleston, Beckley and Morgantown (take that, Mickey Furfari ...), but made all of Mountaineer Nation proud with their tremendous show of compassion and generosity when they found themselves in the midst of the Oklahoma tornado disaster.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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