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Justice administration still assessing potential roads bills impact

By RUSTY MARKS

The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Officials in Gov. Jim Justice’s administration are crunching numbers to try to figure out the possible economic impact of several roads bills passed by theLegislature.

Justice spokesman Butch Antolini said the administration hopes to have a handle on the impact of the bills during the week of June 26.

Gov. Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 1006, which allows for increases in gas taxes and DMV fees to pay for road construction. Justice believes a massive roads project will create jobs and spur the economy, but the administration is not sure how much.
(Photo by Rusty Marks)

During the waning hours of the special budget session on June 16, members of the state Senate and House of Delegates passed two bills to allow funding of a massive road construction and road repair program. Justice has said throughout the state budgeting process that passing the roads bills would be key to the construction program, which he believes will create up to 48,000 jobs and help spur the Mountain State’s economy.

Justice signed one of the pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 1006, into law on Thursday, June 22.

At the time, Justice said state Highways Commissioner Tom Smith had a list of 500 roads projects ready to go. “Some of them are small and some of them are big, but today (Smith) can start,” the governor said.

“It’ll be nice to think about putting a whole bunch of orange barrels out there,” Justice continued. “Bear with the orange cones and bear with the orange barrels, but be happy about the jobs.”

Senate Bill 1006 increases the minimum wholesale price of gasoline from $2.34 per gallon to $3.04 per gallon effective July 1. It increases the sales tax on cars and other motor vehicles from 5 percent to 6 percent, raises registration fees for hybrid or alternative fueled vehicles and increases fees for services and documents provided by the Division of Motor Vehicles, including titles, registrations, drivers licenses and other documents. The cost of registering a car under the new fee schedule will go from $30 to $50.

Lawmakers also passed Senate Bill 1003 on June 16. That piece of legislation allows the West Virginia Parkways Authority to increase tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike, allowed for an annual $8 pass for state residents to travel on the Turnpike without further charge and allows for the application of tolls to other roads around the state with legislative approval.

The bill also gives the Parkways Authority expanded authority to issue construction bonds.

Earlier, during the regular legislative session, the House and Senate passed a joint resolution, which allows for a public vote on whether or not the state can seek a massive road bond for further road construction projects.

Justice is convinced the roads projects will help lift West Virginia out of financial dire straits. But not all lawmakers are convinced the roads bills will be the financial savior the governor predicts.

“I’m not certain one can predict an economic windfall from supposed government jobs,” said Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, who is chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee.

While Gearheart concedes a road-building program will lead to some economic activity, he doesn’t believe it should come at the expense of taxpayers.

For Gearheart, a big question is whether the increase in economic activity created by the roads bills will be greater than the increased cost to taxpayers in the form of higher taxes and fees. “I think the answer is no,” Gearheart said.

“We’re willing to simply tax people instead of making a better economy,” he said. “I think we have it backwards.”

Gearheart also objects to raising tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike. He said the original 30-year bonds to build the road should have been paid off more than 30 years ago, and state residents were promised the tolls would be removed once the bonds were paid.

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