Fate of road bond rests with WV voters

By TAYLOR STUCK

HD Media

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — As early voting continues through Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice and supporters of his Road to Prosperity infrastructure plan are traveling across the state in the final push to get West Virginia voters to the polls next Saturday.

Gov. Jim Justice has proposed about $2.8 billion in road construction and maintenance projects across the state, called the “Roads to Prosperity” program.
(Herald-Dispatch photo by Lori Wolfe)

The governor hopes the majority of the state will vote in favor of his plan, allowing the sale of up to $1.6 billion in bonds over four years to fund the majority of major road projects. Otherwise, projects will be funded through raising tolls on the turnpike, traditional bond sales, and the added gasoline tax and Division of Motor Vehicle fees that went into effect in July.

The plan is predicted by Justice to create 48,000 immediate jobs – if the bond issue is approved.

 “Better roads bring us a better way of life, just like better, or safer, schools bring us a better way of life,” Justice said Sept. 14 in a telephone conference with state press. “When you are trying to attract people to a state, you can give them money, you can give them incentives, you can give them lots of things, but if you don’t have a good way of life, they won’t come. Roads are a gigantic component of that.”

Justice will visit Barboursville and Hurricane on Monday for town hall meetings regarding the road bond vote. He first will be at the Barboursville Veterans Home at 5 p.m. in the recreation room before he heads to the First State Bank on Teays Valley Road at 6:30 p.m. in the bank’s community room.

At the beginning of September, Justice made a stop in Huntington at Marshall University to rally support for the vote. At that town hall, Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Smith said the department already had collected $17 million from the increased fees. They have already begun putting that money to use by tackling secondary two-lane roads.

“Those are the roads you all live on and that never get attended to,” Smith said. “So we said while we wait for the first debt payments, let’s use that pay-as-you-go money to take care of the secondary roads. I think that will be a popular program.”

Along with $250 million in work through federal aid, the West Virginia Division of Highways already had leveraged $415 million for road projects, Smith said.

Of the approved and candidate projects across the state, 34 are in Cabell County. Seven of the 34 projects are already approved for construction. Among them are repairs to Interstate 64 from Milton to U.S. 35 in Putnam County, repaving W.Va. 2 from Millersport to Green Bottom, and resurfacing/repaving rural roads like Little Fudges Creek Road, McComas Road and Irving Road.

Big projects that have regional impacts will be funded through the bonds citizens will vote on Saturday. Those projects include widening Interstate 64 from Huntington to Charleston, plus a new Nitro-St. Albans bridge, and widening the turnpike.

That day at Marshall, Justice called his plan a slam dunk, but critics of Roads to Prosperity aren’t so sure.

In a document sent to state media, Berkeley County Del. Michael Folk, a Republican, disputes three claims Justice has made throughout his “road tours.” One, Folk says, there aren’t projects for every county like the Justice administration claims.

Folk cites the list of 40 potential projects that would be paid for with the general obligation bonds, which do not fall within every county. However, Smith says these projects have regional impact.

As for the number of jobs, Folk says that number is inflated.

“(48,000 jobs) was based on a study from Duke (University) the Justice administration discussed with the Legislature,” Folk writes. “During questioning under oath in a House of Delegates committee, the sponsor admitted the method of counting jobs would count an individual working on three or four different construction projects as three or four jobs, not one! This proves the jobs figure being reported is exaggerated by as much as 300-400 percent.”

Lastly, Folk says the claim there will be no additional taxes, a claim made repeatedly by Justice, is false.

“The bonds will be 25-year general obligation bonds,” Folk writes. “How can any legislator or governor make this claim? The plain language of the resolution says otherwise. Unless they have a 25-year crystal ball, this claim is completely false.”

Justice said at Marshall anyone saying voting for the road bond sale would increase taxes is “un-West Virginian,” but it is true the Legislature is required by law to levy additional taxes and/or fees if the state road fund balance is insufficient to repay the principal and interest on the bonds.

Still, no group other than the West Virginia Republican Party has opposed the plan.

Critics also have noted that paying off the interest on the road bonds over 25 years will mean taxpayers will be spending at least double the $1.6 billion. Smith, though, has countered that if the bonds fail and the state is left to “pay as you go,” the various projects won’t be completed for years, construction costs are likely to be pushed higher by inflation and as time passes even more road work will be required. Issuing the bonds, he argues, will allow the state to get the benefits of improved roads and more jobs much quicker.

Early voting on the measure continues through Wednesday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the Cabell County Courthouse. Polls will open again Saturday, Oct. 7, the day of the special election, from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Some polling locations have been changed due to scheduling conflicts with the Saturday election. Voters whose polling locations have changed should have been notified by mail.

For those who did not receive a postcard, a complete list of precinct locations will be posted in The Herald-Dispatch on Friday, Oct. 6, prior to the election. A sample ballot will also be published in the paper on that day.

Voters can also call Cabell County’s voter registration office at 304-526-8633 with additional questions.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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