Official gives public run down of road work

On Wednesday, September 20, the League of Women Voters of Jefferson County sponsored a Public Forum to provide for public education and information about the upcoming special election on the sale of bonds to facilitate highway projects in West Virginia. LWVJC requested Lee Thorne, a highway engineer for the state’s District 5, which includes the Eastern Panhandle travel to Jefferson County to present information about the bond and to answer citizen questions.[hr]

From The Journal, September 21

CHARLES TOWN — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his administration continued to engage in a full-court public relations press in asking state voters to approve the sale of up $1.6 billion worth in general obligation bonds to accelerate the start of about 600 highway projects statewide.

On Wednesday, however, a top state highway administrator attempted to provide a more objective nuts-and-bolts explanation to Jefferson County voters just how state officials hope to leverage $130 million in new annual tax and fee revenues into long-term financing for the highway projects.

“It’s just like a mortgage,” said Lee Thorne, a highway engineer for the state’s District 5, which includes the Eastern Panhandle, of the Roads to Prosperity bond referendum. “The bond sale is just like a mortgage.”

West Virginia officials have earmarked about $255 million in spending for 46 highway projects within the next four or five years in the Eastern Panhandle that would be financed by the proposed Roads to Prosperity public bond debt initiative.

Among the highest priorities earmarked for accelerated spending — if voters approve issuing the road bonds — are two long-planned projects to widen U.S. 340 and improve its exit and entrance lanes, Thorne said during a presentation in Charles Town hosted by the League of Women Voters.

Voters statewide will decide the matter during a special Roads to Prosperity referendum on Oct. 7. A two-week early voting for the referendum begins Friday through Oct. 4.

Under the terms of an amendment the Roads to Prosperity voter referendum would approve, the maximum term the general obligation bonds for the highway projects could run would be 25 years.

However, Thorne said state officials won’t know exactly how much money West Virginia will be able to borrow from the public bond markets until next July. He said the state needs a year-long track record of how much revenue it will actually collect from increases in gas taxes, Department of Motor Vehicle fees and vehicle sales taxes that took effect in July.

How much revenue the state gathers from new taxes and fees–revenue that will be dedicated to pay up any debt financing that votes might approve — will ultimately determine how much money the state will be able to afford to borrow from the bond market, Thorne said. If the new taxes and fees generate less than $130 million a year as estimated, he said, the state would have to reduce its borrowing total to reflect lower revenues.

If state voters reject the road bond referendum, state officials would have to identify fewer statewide highway projects to fund at a slower pace from revenues that gradually accumulate with help from the new gasoline taxes and, motor vehicle fees and taxes.

The amendment involved in the voter referendum caps the amount of public debt at $1.6 billion that the state can accumulate under the Roads to Prosperity, he added.

Justice has said the Roads to Prosperity bond referendum should quickly generate about 48,000 new jobs in West Virginia.

Responding to a resident’s question during the forum, Thorne said that West Virginia law prevents state officials from favoring West Virginia construction companies in the bidding process over highway construction projects.

Undertaking his biggest political challenge since taking office in January, Justice and administration officials have undertaken a busy public relations campaign to persuade state voters to approve the bond referendum. However, the state Republican leaders last month overwhelmingly adopted a resolution to oppose the highway bond issue. The GOP resolution adopted by 100 lawmakers cites their opposition as upholding principles of smaller government, lower taxes and balanced budgets.

Tim Cook, Staff writer