By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
WELCH, W.Va. — Flanked by signs stating “Jim’s Promise. Roads to Prosperity,” West Virginia’s governor spoke Wednesday to local leaders and McDowell County residents about highway infrastructure, job creation, calling the Legislature to a new session and tackling the state’s opioid epidemic.
Gov. Jim Justice visited the Phoenix Center near downtown Welch to speak about his plans for addressing unemployment and other challenges West Virginia is facing. Secretary of Transportation and Commissioner of Highways Thomas J. Smith addressed the audience first about the governor’s plans.
“It truly is a great day to be here in Welch,” Smith said. “This is the second day of Jim’s Promise tour, and it’s just a wonderful opportunity. We don’t get out to Welch as much as we would like to. We are here to celebrate Jim’s Promise tour and he’s going to tell you more about that.”
“It will be very sporadic at first,” Justice said later about the jobs highway projects could create. “Ultimately at the end of the day, I hope it’s thousands. It will start out with a few, and then it will grow and grow.”
Highway projects which are scheduled to get underway this year in McDowell County include replacing the Green B. and Margie Blankenship Bridge in Panther and repaving the Pageton-Elkhorn Road.
The Jim’s Promise program symbolizes the promise of bringing hope, opportunity and jobs to the state as well as addressing the opioid abuse problem and the problem of West Virginia being listed 50th in many negative categories, he said.
“Bringing highways and jobs into this area means everything. We surely need to revitalize our coal industry, but we need to bring real live tourism back and we can do that. There’s so many opportunities. Furniture manufacturing could come. Agriculture could come. There’s a lot of opportunities that are right at our fingertips here and we’ve just got to put the pieces of the puzzle together,” Justice said.
Justice said part of his plan to finance highway work is to use the $2.8 billion in federal highway funds to support construction bonds. The issue will go before the state’s voters in October.
Smith said the state will receive $450 million a year from the federal government, and $50 million will be set aside for bonding.
“This bond sale in October will be $230 million in one day. That is the single biggest bond sale for transportation purposes in the history of West Virginia,” Smith stated. In April and May next year, the state will be bonding out $600 million to $800 million to finance “big ticket items” such as Coalfields Expressway paving.
Justice also said that he plans to call the Legislature back to Charleston for another session to address two issues he believe would benefit the state.
The successful bidders fee would require contractors bidding on highway projects to pay a five percent fee. This money would be used for drug treatment centers addressing the state’s opioid addiction epidemic, he said. In the other proposal, veterans retirement benefits would be exempt from state taxes; this move would encourage more veterans, people with technical expertise who often want to continue working, to move into the state.
Justice said he would not forget the people in McDowell County and southern West Virginia.
“Let me tell you this, this is home to me,” Justice said, adding he wanted to bring “goodness back to home.”
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