In their recently published book, the "Metropolitan Revolution," Brookings Institution scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley critique federal and state transportation agencies, saying, "A transportation agency responds to transportation challenges ... with transportation solutions ... affirming the old adage 'If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.'"
West Virginia is currently facing a significant transportation challenge. According to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways created by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last year, the state needs to raise an additional $1.13 billion to $1.28 billion in revenue each year to fund its road system. Unfortunately, it appears Katz's and Bradley's criticism is accurate. The solution proposed has been to sell $1 billion in state road bonds and fund them by extending and increasing turnpike tolls and increasing DMV fees.
The problem with the Commission's proposal isn't the proposed methods for raising revenue. Indeed, the Commission should be commended for coming up with a plan that keeps West Virginia's road infrastructure in working order, while minimizing the financial burden on West Virginians. Rather, the problem is that the solution only addresses road upkeep and construction. Such a narrow-minded solution will only become more expensive and inhibit growth in the years to come.
Large-scale transportation projects routinely exceed cost and time estimates. In a study of 258 major transportation projects from around the world, University of Oxford transportation expert Bent Flyvbjerg found that nine in 10 major transportation projects studied incurred cost overruns. Among the challenges are projecting the costs for materials and labor over many years, as well as estimating roads' future use and repair needs.
Understanding population shifts is a crucial component in solving the road-funding deficit. West Virginia grew slightly in the last census, but the growth was concentrated in the Eastern Panhandle and the Morgantown metropolitan area. Other parts of the state are losing population -- rapidly in some cases. Though ensuring people have safe roads to travel is undoubtedly the state's responsibility, it's worth asking if the state should spend millions on upkeep for roads that are used by only a dwindling few.
The state has paved a very large area for very few people. In a sense, this is comparable to Detroit's problem of having a shrinking population spread across a very large area. Detroit experienced a loss of over half its population in a 60-year period. West Virginia has not faced such a pronounced problem, but much of the state is increasingly burdened by an older population that isn't being replenished with younger people.
One of the popular theories on how to revitalize Detroit is getting people to move from the city's outskirts to it center. This would allow the city to target spending to the core and place people closer to jobs, schools, and needed services. West Virginia, too, could benefit from such thinking.
Rural West Virginians face burdens many even in small county seats do not. Most of these problems are caused by the amount of travel required to do anything outside the home, including driving more miles to work, the grocery store, and to receive medical care. This year, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. estimates the average two-parent, two-child family in rural West Virginia spends $717 per month on transportation. In the Charleston metropolitan area, the estimate is $607, and other metros in the state had even lower estimates. This difference adds up. Along with other costs, EPI estimates it costs more than $2,000 more annually to raise a family in rural West Virginia than it does in Charleston.
The state should work to alleviate the road funding deficit by adopting policies that encourage rural people to move into their counties' towns or even the state's cities. Such policy prescriptions cannot force people to move or disincentivize living in rural areas, but can help them make a move if they're seeking new opportunities. These policies should be designed to work over many years, just like the Blue Ribbon Commission's road funding proposal.
West Virginia's road funding deficit should be viewed as a crossroads. Either the state can focus only on paving and ignore the future costs that will likely come with it, or it can take a multifaceted approach that provides savings for the state and families. A good solution will attack the problem from both sides: paying for roads while also reducing the need for so many. A full toolbox is better than a lone hammer.
Smith is a student at the WVU College of Law.