By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – With a new deputy secretary and an updated focus on maintenance, state transportation Cabinet Secretary Jimmy Wriston told members of the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on Department of Transportation Accountability on Monday that he has big goals for his department, and he needs a little more freedom with spending authority.
At the start of his presentation, Wriston announced that Alanna Keller has been appointed as the new deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT).
“She is a graduate of West Virginia Tech,” Wriston said. “She’s a 14-year Division of Highway’s employee, and she has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering.”
Wriston also announced that this year’s work zone safety campaign is being kicked off.
“It’s going to be more than a campaign,” Wriston said. “This is my number one priority.”
He said that a work zone safety committee has been formed to “put together a real work zone safety action plan that we can implement and get results.”
“Our goal is zero fatalities in our work zones,” Wriston noted.
Wriston then discussed the Transportation Asset Management Plan (TAMP), which he explained is the “foundation . . . for data-driven decision making” using federal aid dollars.
He said this plan will help provide resources “where they are needed as opposed to the ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ method that has been done in the past.
“This lays out our strategic plan for not only how we strategize our investment, but how we accomplish it, how we measure it, how we provide accountability and clear transparency in how we move forward with modern transportation,” Wriston added, noting that his next goal is to develop a Statewide Transportation Asset Management Plan (STAMP).
“I know you have all seen the report cards where we get really low grades all across the country in transportation infrastructure – in all of our infrastructure for that matter,” Wriston said to commission members. “I think our water and sewer, even, in the state are at D minus.”
He said the plans will help “turn those grades around.”
Yet, when it comes to his spending authority, Wriston said that he needs more freedom.
While answering a question asked by Sen. Glenn Jefferies, R-Putnam, about how federal aid and state matching dollars work, Wriston explained that every DOT project is first funded with state money. Then, the federal aid program will provide a reimbursement (typically an 80/20 split) that goes into the state road fund.
“The challenge is every year I present a budget to the Legislature,” Wriston began. “I present this budget, and what you are actually approving, you are not giving me an apportionment of money. The money is already in the state road fund. That comes in monthly through the tax on gasoline, registration fees and all the various DMV fees that we use. . . . So, at no point do we have the $1.4 billion dollar budget that we operate on.”
He said the “real issue” is that his spending authority does not come back when federal dollars are reimbursed into the state road fund.
“I’ve already used that, so if I am working on a federal aid project and I have miscalculated a year before when I set this budget up . . . at that point the Legislature has gone home and here I am from March to June 30 trying to figure out, ‘Okay, what do I do?’”
“That is what I am asking for, is the ability to move that spending authority to where it’s needed at the time,” Wriston said.
Also during the meeting, Wriston discussed projects that his department has completed, and some that are still being worked on.
During the 2022 Fourth Extraordinary Session of the state’s Legislature, SB 4003, a governor’s bill, allocated $125 million out of the general revenue surplus fund to the state road fund for maintenance projects for fiscal year 2023, which ends on June 30.
Wriston stated that due to the mild winter, which also resulted in a 40% decrease in salt usage, they were able to get a lot accomplished at a considerable savings.
Only eight projects remain on the “to-do” list, while 351 have been completed, Wriston noted. $117 million of those dollars has been expended, and, as a result of the savings, six additional projects have been added to the list.
“We are actually going to do a few more projects than are on the list,” Wriston said. “So, we are getting a little more bang for our buck than we anticipated.”
Last year, Wriston stated that close to $83 million in purchase order paving was completed as well as the placement of 85 million tons of asphalt through contract paving.
Wriston also said he was “really proud” that the state’s forces completed 208 centerline miles of paving.
“Many of those paving jobs were accomplished with the help of the general revenue funds that the legislature approved, and we utilized that. We’ve seen less potholes this year thanks to being able to pave those,” Wriston said, adding that he is committed to completing pothole repairs by Memorial Day.
“I am confident that we will get that done,” Wriston stated.
With a new negotiation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Wriston explained that 543 acres of canopy cutting was completed between November and March, instead of the former 104-acre restriction.
Although, in response to a question from Commission Chairman Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, about the DOT’s relationship with the federal agency, Wriston stated that they now have a dialogue, but projects are still being slowed down.
”They’re holding us up,” Wriston said of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. “They are affecting our ability to apply for discretionary (federal) grants because of the environmental aspect. They’re affecting our ability to do temporary impact activities such as core boring on Corridor H or core boring on the Coalfields Expressway.”
“Once you lose your window to do these types of things, you lose a whole construction season because they have to be done timely,” Wriston continued. “The piecemeal activity–we worked through the bumblebee activity, but it took all winter to do it – and as soon as I lost the winter to be out there drilling . . . for the bumblebee issue, here comes the bat issue right behind it. We could have dealt with both at the same time.”
As for pothole repairs, Sen. Michael Oliverio II, R-Monongalia, asked what is the best way for residents to inform the DOT about a pothole that needs repaired, or any type of road maintenance that needs to be addressed.
Wriston responded that the best way to file a complaint is through the DOT website through a Safety With Action Today Request, or by calling 1-833-WV-ROADS (1-833-987-6237).
“We respond within seven days,” Wriston said, noting that while the repair may not be done in seven days, they will let a person know what the plan is to take care of the issue in that timeframe.
He also stated that current road projects, and future plans, like the State Transportation Improvement Plan, may be found on the website.