The following editorial appeared in The Times West Virginian of Fairmont on Nov. 10:
The Congress is poised to do something it has not done in seven years; pass a comprehensive long-term highway funding bill.
The U.S. House voted 363-64 Thursday — with all three members of the West Virginia delegation voting for it — to pass the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015.
The bill still must go to a House-Senate conference committee to work out differences. According to The Hill, the Senate version authorizes six years of funding, but only pays for three, while the House version also authorizes six years, but only if the final three years are paid for.
It appears a higher gas tax will not be part of the solution. House Republican leaders rejected a move by Democrat lawmakers to raise the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal tax by another 15 cents. The federal gas tax was last raised 21 years ago (from 14 cents to 18.4 cents), but according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation, inflation has actually reduced the buying power of the gas tax by one-third over that period. (Diesel is taxed at 24.4 cents per gallon.)
Without a gas tax increase, Congress will likely have to resort to budgetary tricks to meet the full six-year funding. However, you won’t hear state leaders or motorists complain because they’ll be happy to finally have a steady stream of money for the roads.
The bill authorizes spending up to $340 billion over six years. That’s a lot of money, but it goes fast. For example, $55 billion goes toward mass transit, and the road and bridge building money is divided among all 50 states.
West Virginia typically gets more than we pay in. According to the office of Representative Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., while the state has just 0.6 percent of the U.S. population, it generally receives over $400 million of the approximately $40 billion that is typically allocated each year from the highway trust fund.
Lord knows we can use it. Nearly one-third of the over 10,000 miles of West Virginia roads that are eligible for federal funds (West Virginia has a total of 38,750 miles of roads) are rated “not acceptable” and in need of major repairs or replacement. Additionally, 1,541 of the state’s 7,187 bridges are rated functionally obsolete and another 960 are structurally deficient.
Meanwhile, Gov. Tomblin and lawmakers are under public pressure to fix the roads. The governor put another $82 million toward road repairs this year, bringing total spending to more than $300 million, the most ever.
“This was an aggressive effort, but we all know there’s still much to be done,” Tomblin said last August. “But let me be clear. Regardless of any additional funding or appropriations that we make, all states, including ours, count on federal funds to assist with both new construction and road maintenance.”
Well, now Washington is on the verge of holding up its end of the bargain, so the pressure is back on Gov. Tomblin and lawmakers to do their part next legislative session for the roads.