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Justice: $1.6 billion bond referendum essential to W.Va. future


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD, W.Va.  — Gov. Jim Justice and other state officials promoted the upcoming $1.6 billion bond referendum vote as essential to progress in the state during a conference call with state media organized by the West Virginia Press Association Thursday afternoon.

Called the Roads to Prosperity Highway Program, the money from the referendum would be earmarked for projects all around the state.

“I really believe it’s the single biggest vote West Virginians have ever made in the history of the state,” Justice said. “This referendum is the launching pad for the future of West Virginia beyond belief.”

The state is losing population, he said, and families are being fragmented because people are leaving to find work elsewhere.

“We had to have something that is … immediate jobs,” he said, adding that he saw the roads and projects already on the books could create jobs as well as provide the highway infrastructure needed for growth.

“But we needed a way to fund it,” he said, and that meant a bond providing a “gigantic amount of money” to bring in an estimated 48,000 jobs for construction.

Justice also emphasized that the funding mechanism for paying off the bonds is already in place, as the result of “funding buckets” that include increases this year in the gas tax, department of motor vehicle (DMV) fees and turnpike tolls.

Funding mechanisms already have to be in place before bonds are sold, he said, or they would not be purchased.

“The funding is already there,” he said. “There is no additional tax increases at all.”

However, Justice did leave the door open for possible tolls on new highways.

“The tolling is a possibility,” he said. “But I don’t know that we will need it at all.”

He did point out that an $8 annual pass now used for the West Virginia Turnpike would be good for any toll road in the state.

“If things go well, we will not need any more tolling,” he said. “But I would not want us to commit to building anything anywhere and say never, never, never. The fallback is, your maximum fee is $8 (a year).”

The funding from the bond referendum is part of a larger package.

Additional funding through the Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (GARVEE) bonds, which allows states to repay the bond using expected federal road funding, will help bring the total amount for roads to about $3.2 billion, with $2.4 billion of that for new construction.

The payroll tax on the jobs needed for that construction would bring in about $200 million a year to the state, he said.

“It does so much for West Virginia it’s off the charts,” he said. “I don’t see how anybody can turn their backs on this.”

Transportation Secretary Tom Price was also on the call and said the state has already seen an increased level of road work, but that can only go so far without more money.

“I can’t tell you enough how important this is,” he said of the bond issue. “That is how we get to the big projects.”

Price said the bonds are about two-thirds of the total program.

Both Price and Justice said the Coalfield Expressway and King Coal Highway are crucial for the state and will be part of the work financed with the bond funding.

Other money may come in if the federal infrastructure plan pushed by Pres. Donald Trump goes through.

During a visit Wednesday to the Bluefield Coal Show, Justice said that plan may be passed within the next year.

Other state officials were on the call and said the roads package helps in many areas, from schools to tourism.

Residents who intend to vote in the Oct. 7 bond referendum but are not registered have until Sept. 18 to register.

Early voting starts Sept. 22 and lasts until Oct. 4. The deadline for absentee ballot applications is Oct. 6.

Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected].

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