Justice pushes highway referendum
WEIRTON — Sitting before a crowd of more than 70 in Weirton Wednesday night, Gov. Jim Justice pledged West Virginians would not see any additional tax increases if voters pass a referendum to allow the sale of bonds to fund road improvements throughout the state.
The Roads to Prosperity referendum will be on the ballot as part of a special election set for Oct. 7. Early voting will begin Friday.
If passed, the referendum would allow for the sale of bonds to raise approximately $1.6 billion to pay for road projects throughout the state. On Wednesday, Justice said it would create an immediate 48,000 jobs in the construction field, without any additional taxes.
“Your taxes are not going up in any way, form or fashion,” Justice said. “It’s all done.”
Revenue increases to assist with the bond sale already have been enacted by the Legislature, with an anticipated $40 million in new toll revenue on the West Virginia Turnpike and $130 million coming from increased Division of Motor Vehicles fees, car taxes and gas taxes.
Justice also addressed rumors of potential tolling on I-70, saying it is not something state officials currently are discussing.
“In my world today, we’re not looking at tolling anything except the existing turnpike,” Justice said.
The governor said, through his conversations with officials in Washington, D.C., he believes the road referendum, if passed, would lead to further investment and development, including in the energy sector.
“This is only the beginning,” Justice said. “This is a launching pad like nobody’s business.”
Several in the audience asked about the impact of the proposed highway projects, including what guarantees there would be that West Virginians would be able to get the jobs available as a result, and whether job training would be provided.
W.Va. Secretary of Transportation Thomas J. Smith, also in attendance at Wednesday’s town hall, said a task force has been formed to look at making certain the highest priority projects are included, and to see what training would be needed and how it could be provided.
“We are going to get on it, we just want to do it right,” Smith said.
Others brought up the current condition of U.S. 22 — currently undergoing maintenance — and the need for further expansion and maintenance of state Route 2.
Pat Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, said it is important for a proposed bypass project in New Cumberland to be included in any highway project package.
The bypass would re-route a portion of Route 2 around a series of 90-degree turns leading to the city’s downtown. Ford said it is among the obstacles for economic development in northern Hancock County.
“That little bend in the road is strangling some of the most developable land in the Ohio Valley,” Ford said.
Linda McNeil, former New Cumberland mayor who had been pushing for the bypass, stressed there also are safety concerns as existing areas of Route 2 have crumbled.
Del. Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, also noted the need for improved highway infrastructure in the region because of possible new jobs rolling off of the construction of an ethane cracker plant in Monaca, Pa.
Brooke County Commissioner Tim Ennis asked about improvements to existing roads, with Justice explaining the bonds will provide new revenue to address priority projects, with current highway funds then allotted to projects which otherwise might not have received any attention.
“Every dollar, constitutionally, has to be spent on the roads,” Justice said.
Smith agreed, saying having the bond funding also could assist in applying for additional federal funds for more road projects.
“It won’t fix everything, but it will give us a good running start,” Smith said.
During a meeting in Weirton Friday, DOH District 6 Engineer Gus Suwaid listed 19 projects in Hancock and Brooke counties which would be eligible for funding if the referendum passes. The list included the New Cumberland bypass, as well as maintenance to several local roadways and bridges.
(Howell can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and followed via Twitter @CHowellWDT)