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Failure to pass law may hamper plans for W.Va. 9 funding

October 02, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd and the head of West Virginia's transportation department said Wednesday that the millions of dollars the state is losing for not lowering its blood-alcohol limit for motorists could hamper the $198 million project to widen W.Va. 9 in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

West Virginia will lose $2.6 million in federal highway funding next year for not lowering the blood-alcohol limit from .10 percent to .08 percent, and could lose a total of $26.5 million if it does not make the change by 2007.

Not lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit will not affect the money that already has been allocated for widening W.Va. 9 from two to four lanes, said Tom Gavin, a spokesman for Byrd.

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Byrd has set aside $121 million for the new highway.

But if the state does not lower the blood-alcohol limit, it could hamper the governor's ability to set aside additional money for the project, which is experiencing cost overruns, Gavin said.

Because of court challenges over the widening of W.Va. 9, design changes that had to be made, and other factors, the cost of the project has increased by $97 million, state highway officials said.

State Transportation Secretary Fred VanKirk agreed Wednesday that the loss of funding could affect the widening of W.Va. 9, although he said it was too early to determine what those effects might be.

"It affects our whole program," VanKirk said.

Because West Virginia did not meet Wednesday's deadline, 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.

The loss of highway funding in 2005 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.

There was a difference of opinion Tuesday as to whether the state could recoup the losses if it reduces its blood-alcohol limit.

Norm Roush, deputy commissioner of the state Division of Highways, said the state can recoup any of its losses - including the total $26.5 million - if it passes the lower .08 blood-alcohol limit by 2008.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, and Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, said they were not aware of such a reimbursement provision.

Gavin said Wednesday he talked with a staff member who works on transportation issues and that person confirmed that the state can be reimbursed for any money it loses if it lowers the limit.

Neither Gavin or VanKirk could say how much progress has been made in obtaining the additional $97 million needed to widen W.Va. 9.

Byrd has won Senate Appropriations Committee approval for an additional $10 million for the project, Gavin said. The extra $10 million would be included in the fiscal year 2004 transportation funding bill, Gavin said.

The bill, which also includes $343 million Byrd has included for highway projects across West Virginia, is expected to go before the full Senate sometime in the next two weeks, Gavin said.

The widening of W.Va. 9 began last April, when Byrd and Gov. Bob Wise broke ground on a segment that is about a third of a mile long in Bardane, W.Va.

Within the next two months, highway crews hope to start construction on two more segments that will extend the new road to Kearnesyville, W.Va., from Bardane, VanKirk said.

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