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Panel: Up to $1.28 billion needed for roads

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of a state panel agreed Wednesday on the price tag to fully build and maintain West Virginia's road system -- an additional $1.13 billion to $1.28 billion a year -- but not on ways to pay that tab.

Ultimately, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways voted to hold six statewide public hearings in June, with all funding options -- ranging from a 1 percent increase in sales taxes to a $200 registration fee for alternative-fuel vehicles -- on the table.

However, all the options discussed Wednesday wouldn't come close to paying the annual bill for the needed road construction.

Brenda Nichols Harper of the state Chamber of Commerce had recommended scaling back the needed additional funding to $400 million a year.

"I'm very concerned that we are asking for more than the taxpayers in the state can afford," Harper said of the billion-dollar figure.

However, Marshall University professor Andrew Nichols said the commission should not soft-pedal the costs to maintain the state's road system.

"We're doing a disservice as a commission if we set aside the system needs to come up with a number we think is more palatable," he said.

Commission members considered putting together several proposals of combinations of tax and fee increases to take out for public comment, but they heeded the advice of retired West Virginia University business and economics professor Tom Witt to leave all funding options on the table.

If the commission proposed several funding packages, Witt said, "the natural tendency of everyone is to pick the one that's cheapest."

Proposals discussed Wednesday to fund road construction included:

• Increasing the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, with the increase dedicated to the Road Fund, providing an estimated $200 million in annual revenue.

• Increasing Division of Motor Vehicle fees. Proposed increases include raising vehicle registrations from $28.50 to $49, and increasing titles from $5 to $40, for total additional annual revenue of $64.2 million.

• Increasing the automobile privilege tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, which would raise $37.2 million.

• Increasing the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack, with the increase dedicated to the Road Fund, raising $37 million.

• Increasing the excise tax on diesel fuel, which would raise $14.5 million.

• Setting a special registration fee for alternative-fuel vehicles at $200 a year, which would raise $1.1 million.

If all proposals were adopted, Road Fund revenues would increase by $419.8 million a year -- less than half of what is needed, according to reports to the commission.

Several commissioners noted that it would be politically unfeasible to raise that amount of taxes and fees.

"It will be a challenge to get anything close to $400 million," said Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, a former Senate president, noting that such increases would draw revenue away from other state agencies.

"You'd just start sucking the life out of everything else in state government," he said.

Wes Stafford, from the engineering consulting firm CDM Smith, told the commission that about 4 percent of state roads -- about 1,397 miles -- are deficient, and about 653 miles of roadways have unacceptable levels of congestion.

If current funding levels are not increased, nearly 39 percent of state roads will be deficient within 25 years, he said.

Stafford said the government needs to come up with about $600 million a year in additional funding to maintain roads at current conditions, and about $1.28 billion a year to meet full highways needs, and reduce the percentage of deficient roads to 1.4 percent.

Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said the commission needs to educate the public about the financial cost of allowing roadways to deteriorate.

"What's the cost to commerce?" he asked. "I'm trying to make sure we'll be able to compete, both globally and locally."

Jason Pizatella, counsel to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and chairman of the commission, noted that several states are looking at ways to raise additional revenue to build and maintain highways.

"West Virginia is not alone. West Virginia is not an island," he said. "As we speak, there are at least 20 states considering similar programs."

The commission, made up of state and local officials, members of constituency groups and citizen members, will schedule six public hearings around the state in June, and will meet June 26 to work on final recommendations to present to the governor, tentatively set to be submitted by July 1.

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


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