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Lost funding may affect W.Va. roads

October 01, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Opinions are mixed over whether the millions of dollars West Virginia stands to lose because it didn't lower the state's legal blood-alcohol limit for motorists will affect highway projects in the Eastern Panhandle, including the $198 million project to widen W.Va. 9 from two to four lanes in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

Because West Virginia will not meet today's federal deadline for lowering its legal blood-alcohol limit from .10 percent to .08 percent, it will lose $2.6 million in federal highway funding next year, said Bob Tipton, director of the Governor's Highway Safety Program.

For every year that the Legislature does not lower the blood-alcohol limit, the amount of federal highway funding the state loses steadily increases, Tipton said.

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The loss of highway funding in the 2005 fiscal year would be $5.3 million, the loss in 2006 would be $8 million and the loss in 2007 would be $10.6 million, Tipton said.

The state can recoup any of its losses - including the total $26.5 million - if it passes the lower .08 percent blood-alcohol level within that period, said Norm Roush, deputy commissioner of the state Division of Highways.

Roush said the reason he thinks the Legislature has not acted to lower the legal blood-alcohol level is because lawmakers believed they could safely put the issue on the "back burner" for now.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, and Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, said they were not aware of the possibility of being reimbursed for the money the state might lose.

"We can't afford it," said Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, about losing any federal highway money.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell on Tuesday signed a bill to reduce Pennsylvania's legal blood-alcohol limit. The bill got final approval in the state House of Representatives on Monday, a move that would save the state from losing as much as $11 million in federal highway funding.

Maryland passed its version of the law in 2001.

Del. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley/Morgan, said the $2.6 million in federal funding the state will lose next year for not passing the tougher blood-alcohol level bill could have been used to offset the increasing cost of widening W.Va. 9 from two to four lanes between Martinsburg and the Virginia state line in Jefferson County.

Because of court challenges over the widening of W.Va. 9, needed design changes and other factors, the cost of the project increased from $121 million to $198 million, Roush said.

"The $2 million could be one of the things that could help out," Blair said.

Unger, however, said federal highway money that will be withheld from the state is used to fund highway projects across the state and cannot be used on one project.

Roush and Doyle said they do not believe the potential loss of federal highway funds would hurt the W.Va. 9 project.

The initial $121 million for the project came from a special congressional allocation and state officials are hoping U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd can obtain the extra $97 million needed to complete the project, Roush said.

Doyle said he believes projects that are in the design stage will not be affected by highway funding losses. It likely will slow projects that have not made it to the design stage, Doyle said.

"It just backs everything up," Doyle said.

Dale Manuel, D-Jefferson, said there was an attempt during the last legislative session to drop the legal drunken-driving limit to .08 percent, but he believes it failed because the proposal was tied to a proposed new seat belt bill.

The seat belt proposal would have allowed police to pull over motorists if they are not wearing their seat belts, Manuel said. Currently, motorists only can be cited for not wearing seat belts if they are pulled over for another violation, Manuel said.

Opposition to the seat belt bill may have brought down the drunken-driving proposal, Manuel said.

Manuel said he still wants to work on passing both measures.

Blair said it was a "foolish, foolish maneuver" to pair the .08 percent blood-alcohol proposal with the new seat belt bill because the blood-alcohol bill would have passed on its own.

Blair said he hopes to see the .08 percent blood-alcohol bill introduced as a separate bill in the Legislature.

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