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W.Va. Department of Transportation hears opposition to road taxes

July 11, 2013|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com

KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. — Most of the 50 area residents, legislators and local officials attending a public meeting Thursday on West Virginia’s transportation infrastructure problems expressed opposition to new road taxes for maintenance and construction of highway and bridge systems.

The survey was done electronically with all audience members handed a remote device through which they posted their answers to four multiple-choice questions on 14 related topics. Questions with anything to do with raising taxes received negative responses.

The session, held at the Comfort Suites, was the first of nine regional meetings across West Virginia by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways to solicit public opinion.

According to a news release announcing the meeting, the state’s transportation system is “reaching a crisis stage. The primary sources of funds for West Virginia’s Transportation system are no longer keeping up with the needs.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed the 25-member commission last year to identify the system’s overall condition, new revenue sources, where new construction is needed and to draft a long-term plan.

The commission includes residents, legislators, local officials, representatives from business and industry, economic development, and travel and hospitality agencies.

Six committee members present Thursday were David Suttenfield, a private citizen representing the 1st Congressional District, Joe Deneault of West Virginians for Better Transportation, Kenneth Perdue of the AFL-CIO, state Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, Jan Vineyard of the West Virginia Business and Industry Council and Mark Baldwin, Martinsburg’s city manager.

The Department of Transportation is responsible for 36,000 miles of public roads, giving West Virginia the nation’s sixth largest state-maintained highway network, according to BRC statistics. Municipalities have public road departments, but West Virginia counties don’t. The rest of the roads are private.

Primary sources of highway maintenance and construction funds are gasoline taxes, taxes and fees for vehicle registrations and driver’s licenses, and dwindling federal transportation funds, the commission said.

The state ranks 49th in capital investment for highways.

Representatives from West Virginia for Better Transportation Coalition and Contractors of West Virginia said they support the commission’s efforts.

“West Virginia is no island,” said Mike Clowser, executive director of the contractors association. “There are 20 states with the same problems.”

Clowser credited Maryland and Virginia for raising revenue for highway construction.

He said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett also tried, but his legislators opposed him.

“There’s no magic bullet,” her said. “We either do something, or we suffer the consequences.”

There was no shortage of Eastern Panhandle legislators at the session, but they offered little if any encouragement to the Blue Ribbon Commission’s effort.

Those who spoke were Republicans. None supported raising taxes for roads, some called for changes in the prevailing wage system or pushed to move DOT’s budget to the general fund budget so that money can be moved around in lieu of new taxes. 

Delegates who spoke were Daryl E. Cowles, R-Morgan/Hampshire; Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson; Michael Folk, R-Berkeley; Larry D. Kump, R-Berkeley/Morgan; and John Overington, R-Berkeley. State Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley/Morgan, also spoke.

Berkeley County Republican delegates who attended, but did not speak publicly, included Eric Householder and Larry Faircloth.

The two Democratic House members present were Jason Barrett of Berkeley County and Stephen Skinner of Jefferson County. Neither addressed the commission.

“I came to observe,” Skinner said after the session.

He observed that the tea party was well represented at the meeting.

“Roads don’t get built by magic. This is a time for citizens to speak up,” Skinner said.

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