Economist: W.Va. may need local help with roads

AP News
Posted: Dec 10, 2009 8:11 AM

The Great Depression helped force West Virginia to take over most roads within its borders from cash-strapped counties. State lawmakers were advised Wednesday to consider changing course amid chronic funding problems made worse by The Great Recession.

"The time may have come for the establishment of a new partnership between local and state government," said Tom Witt, a professor at West Virginia University and director of its Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Witt told lawmakers at an interim session meeting that only three other states have such a centralized system for operating and financing roads. While other states rely on counties and municipalities for some road maintenance and local revenues to fund them, West Virginia has the nation's sixth-largest share of state-managed roadway.

"The lack of significant innovation will result in the de facto abandonment of parts of the current highways network, and an increase in private costs to motorists from highway damage," Witt said.

West Virginia's State Road Fund pays for highway building, maintenance and repair. Its main revenue sources _ taxes on fuel, vehicle sales and related registrations _ have stagnated this decade because of improved fuel efficiency, occasional gas price spikes, the economic downturn and other factors. The cost of key materials, asphalt and concrete, have meanwhile risen.

Witt suggested modest changes to the existing taxes. The state could increase the 5 percent tax on vehicle purchases to match the general sales tax of 6 percent.

It could also index its registration fees to inflation, he said. But while he also listed hiking the gas tax as an option, West Virginia's rate is already the 13th highest nationwide and a very close second behind Pennsylvania among its neighbors, according to October figures from the American Petroleum institute.

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Witt cited the 2007 legislation that allowed the state to enlist the private sector on projects. Contractors could erect tolls or otherwise benefit.

Other options include special fees for highly efficient or alternative fuel vehicles. But noting that most states face similar woes, Witt reminded lawmakers that a cure-all funding solution remains elusive.

"We've picked the low-hanging fruit, we've climbed up the tree," Witt said. "Now someone is sawing off the limb."