Questions linger as state plans road projects with coronavirus funds
CHARLESTON — State highways officials have announced the roads expected to be repaired as part of the $1.25 billion in federal funding for coronavirus expenses, though concerns remain about whether the repairs are allowed.
The West Virginia Division of Highways unveiled Monday afternoon its Medical Access Roads program. The project is being funded with $50 million of the $1.25 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act distributed to West Virginia for state, county, and municipal coronavirus-related expenses.
A list of projects can be found online at transportation.wv.gov/Documents/MARP-Projects-List.pdf
The Medical Access Roads program will fund highway projects to improve access to hospitals and other medical facilities.
To be considered for the program, the highway project must be completed before the end of 2020 due to the C.A.R.E.S. Act reimbursement deadline of Dec. 31.
The project includes 95 roads in all 55 counties, totaling 217.3 miles and connecting 68 hospitals and 307 primary care facilities. Projects mostly consist of secondary road maintenance, such as drainage repair, culvert replacements, slides and slips, paving and grading, and shoulder stabilization.
“These projects focus heavily on paving, drainage, slips, slides, and any other issue that may make it difficult for emergency personnel to respond to calls,” said Gov. Jim Justice in a statement. “We want to correct these issues and provide ease of access to medical services for all West Virginians.”
Local projects include $105,000 for milling and paving of Pennsylvania Avenue in Weirton and a $475,000 slip repair project on Genteel Ridge Road in Wellsburg. Project notes for the projects state Pennsylvania Avenue “leads directly to Weirton Medical Center. Very rough condition.” Of the Genteel Ridge project, notations state “Road is used by multiple (volunteer fire departments) in Brooke Co., all have complained about the road’s condition in the press. Oil and gas has recently paved a portion.”
The projects were selected by the Division of Highways with advice from officials from emergency medical services agencies and county emergency management officials. Many of the projects cite improved access to local hospitals as reasons for the project. Other justifications for road projects cite that road conditions would make it difficult for ambulances and first responders to respond to emergencies.
“These projects not only meet the criteria, but also provide real improvements to roads used by our citizens and first responders,” said Jimmy Wriston, deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation and deputy commissioner of highways. “It’s the division’s honor to be able to contribute to providing enhanced access to medical facilities during this time of heightened concern for health and safety. When these projects are complete, it will be one less worry for people.”
Justice first unveiled his idea for “COVID-19 related highway projects” June 26 when he announced his proposed C.A.R.E.S. Act spending plans. Originally, Justice planned to spend $100 million on these COVID-19 highways projects, but that was reduced to $50 million with another $50 million set aside for broadband expansion projects to help with virtual learning, telemedicine and remote working during the pandemic. Bailey Glasser, an outside law firm handling C.A.R.E.S. Act issues and legal assistance for the state, signed off on the state’s proposal for the Medical Access Roads program, though its opinion has not been released to the public.
Justice’s plan to use C.A.R.E.S. Act funding for his Medical Access Roads program has come under fire since the day he announced it. Both Republican and Democratic legislators have decried the decision in letters asking for a special session to have a say in the appropriation of the $1.25 billion.
Kanawha County Commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor Ben Salango has said the money would be put to better use for making schools safe to reopen during the pandemic. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has been a frequent critic of Justice’s handling of C.A.R.E.S. Act funds.
“The governor is using this as a political slush fund,” Manchin said during a conference call with reporters last week. “No governor should be able to use that money at their discretion.”
During Monday’s coronavirus briefing, Justice was asked whether the projects in the Medical Access Roads program would be reimbursable under the U.S. Treasury Department’s guidelines for C.A.R.E.S. Act spending.
“We vetted this through every vehicle we can find to vet it,” Justice said. “I’ve got to have confidence in our people. We have checked this, checked this, and checked this as to how we can use these funds in regard to this from the standpoint of the medical emergency stuff that we’re doing.”
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