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Roads in bad shape, Highways panel told

LOGAN, W.Va. -- Looking for ways to close a major gap in funding for state roads and highways, members of the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways went on the road Tuesday for the second of a series of public meetings around the state.

Participants Tuesday voiced support for better roads, and indicated a willingness to pay more taxes or fees to achieve that goal.

We don't have all the answers, so we are reaching out to the public for your opinion," commissioner Jan Vineyard told an audience of 61 at the Chief Logan State Park hotel conference center.

"Our roads are the lifeblood of the state," said Vineyard, who represents the state Business and Industry Council.

During a live survey Tuesday using electronic keypads, participants agreed that good state roads are important, and 73 percent indicated they believe roads are not in good condition.

They also indicated they would support increased taxes and fees dedicated to state road-building and maintenance, although 50 percent opposed increases in the state gas tax.

However, it appeared representatives and employees of paving and construction companies packed the room, dominating the speakers during a public comment period that closed the session.

Among the findings of the survey of participants:

* 72 percent said state roads are not in good condition.

* 77 percent would support higher motor vehicle license and registration fees.

* The audience was split 50-50 on the issue of higher gas taxes.

* 90 percent favored additional registration fees and taxes on hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles.

* 65 percent would support an increase in the state sales tax, dedicated to the Road Fund. However, 21 percent strongly opposed a tax increase.

* 96 percent support continuing tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike, and 77 percent support creating new toll roads for new and expanded highways.

Frieda Napier, one of the few private citizens who spoke Tuesday, told the commission, "We need roads desperately. Hopefully, one day we will drive a four-lane road from Man to Logan."

Afterward, commissioner and Senate Transportation Chairman Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, said he was surprised by the support for increased road funding.

"I was taken aback by the complete opposite position to what we heard in Martinsburg," he said, referring to the site of the first public meeting.

"These folks were willing to step up and support additional revenue for roads," Beach said, discounting the possibility industry representatives had stacked the vote.  

Consultants have advised the commission that the state needs an additional $600 million a year of revenue to adequately maintain existing roadways, and more than $1.1 billion a year to complete and maintain the state road system.

In June, a commission Revenue Committee proposed a number of tax and fee increases to raise more than $400 million a year. Key hikes would include a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax, to raise about $200 million a year; increases in various DMV fees, to raise $64 million a year; and a 50-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, for about $37 million annually.

However, many commission members questioned the feasibility of raising taxes that much, including Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, who noted, "You'd just start sucking the life out of everything else in state government.

Tuesday's public meeting was the second of nine scheduled around the state through mid-August.

The commission is expected to meet later in August to finalize its recommendations to the governor.

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


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