By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice took a spin on the hyperbole highway Tuesday, declaring that his road-building initiative will lead the state to unprecedented heights.
“Of everything that’s been done in this state forevermore … this is the biggest, this is the boldest, this will absolutely turn the state around,” Justice said at a media event to sign legislation extending and expanding the state Parkway Authority’s tolling authority, along with an executive order setting a Oct. 7 special election for a referendum on whether the state may sell up to $1.6 billion of road bonds.
While Justice failed to convince legislators to support his budget plan during the 21-day special session, he was able to win passage of legislation raising the gas tax by 3½ cents a gallon and increasing the motor vehicle privilege tax and a variety of Division of Motor Vehicles fees to raise about $140 million a year — funding that will finance the road bond issue, if approved by voters.
He also won passage of legislation continuing and expanding the Parkways Authority, setting the groundwork for the sale of an additional $400 to $500 million of road bonds, financed from ongoing Turnpike tolls. Also during the regular session, the Legislature approved legislation increasing the amount of federally financed GARVEE bonds that the state can issue, which would provide another $300 million for road construction.
“There is nothing that has happened in my lifetime, I think, in this state that will perpetuate the state like this right here,” Justice said of the roads plan. “I am proud beyond all comprehension.”
Combined, the bonding proposals would raise about $2.4 billion of what Justice ultimately envisions as $2.8 billion to $3 billion of highways construction funding.
“The most we’ve ever had before was $500 million and that was a thousand years ago,” Justice said, referring to the Better Highways amendment passed in 1973. Adjusted for inflation, that bond issue would amount to $2.78 billion in 2017 dollars, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.
Voters last approved a road bond amendment in 1996, for $550 million, or about $859 million adjusted for inflation.
One daunting bit of history facing Justice: Between passage of road bond amendments in 1973 and 1996, voters defeated road bond referendums in 1981, 1984 and 1986, and no road bond amendment has been put before the voters in 21 years.
In addition to banking on the jobs and tax revenue the road construction projects would create, Justice earlier this month increased the state’s 2017-18 revenue estimate by $170 million, an increase based in part on projected economic stimulus from the highways projects.
“If it fails…you will not be able to generate the revenue that we plugged into the budget,” he said. “If that happens, we will spin back around and have to further cut [Department of Health and Human Resources], and K-12, and further cut our universities. You will have a complete melt-down if this doesn’t go through.”
Justice said it’s inconceivable to him that people would vote against the road bond amendment, particularly since the gas tax and fee increases become effective on Saturday, regardless of the outcome of the bond election.
“I don’t know what in the world would go through someone’s mind, and I don’t want to be derogatory in any way, but to not want roads, and to not want jobs, and to not want opportunity for this great state would be a terrible, terrible thing for this state,” he said.
Justice said his goal is to have the various bond issues ready to go to market as soon as possible to take advantage of current low interest rates.
“The longer we mess around with this, the higher probability is that interest rates rise. If interest rates rise, that just hurts us. It hurts us all over the place,” he said.
Parkways General Manager Greg Barr said previously that the authority’s plan is to have the Parkways bonds ready to go to market sometime around December to January, so that road construction projects can be bid out, and be ready to get underway by Spring 2018.
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