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Highway hearings packed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A large majority of those attending the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways' public meeting in Logan Tuesday showed strong support for raising taxes and fees, and maintaining and expanding toll roads, in order to fund construction and maintenance of state highways.

Not coincidentally, about three-fourths of the 61 participants were representatives or employees of contractors or paving companies.

Mike Clowser, executive director of the Contractors Association of West Virginia, said Wednesday that their attendance was the result of a call to action to have his group's members, employees, subcontractors and suppliers attend the commission's meetings statewide.

He said that was prompted by the commission's first public meeting last week in Martinsburg -- where the audience was strongly opposed to any new taxes or fees for state roads.

"In Martinsburg, there was a concerted effort to get people there who were anti-everything," Clowser said. "The question became, where is the industry? Where are the people who support our highway program?"

While the Contractors Association turnout accounted for a large majority of the attendance in Logan, Clowser said he believes more members of the general public will turn out for commission meetings in larger cities.

He also questioned whether it skewed results of a live, electronic survey at Tuesday's meeting, which included 65 percent support for increasing the state sales tax to fund roads, and 96 percent support for keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike.

"I'm hearing so many people today saying, we've got to do something about our roads," he said.

Amy Shuler Goodwin, spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said Wednesday the administration is not concerned about groups packing the public meetings.

"The contractors are obviously an important part of this group, but there are many folks involved in these meetings with various ideas and recommendations," she said.

"With the number of Blue Ribbon Commission meetings we have across the state, we think we'll get very good information from a variety of different groups," Goodwin added.

Jan Vineyard, who moderated Tuesday's meeting and represents the state Business and Industry Council on the commission, also expressed no concerns about the Contractors Association unduly influencing the public hearings.

In fact, Vineyard said she sent a memo to members of the council urging them to attend Thursday's commission meeting in Huntington.

"We think the more, the merrier. We want these responses from all the people," she said.

"Everyone wants good highways," Vineyard said. "I think we're hitting home -- people understand we need to pay for them."

The nine public meetings will wrap up Aug. 15 in Elkins. The commission is expected to meet later in August to finalize recommendations to the governor for ways to fund more adequately state road construction and maintenance needs.

Clowser said he's hopeful Tomblin will call a special session of the Legislature later this year to act on those recommendations.

"I do think people realize something must be done now, or we have to accept the consequences," Clowser said. "This issue is so vital and so important, I would hope they'd want to address it in a special session."

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


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