Photo by Douglas Soule

When Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, they ensured West Virginia would receive at least $6 billion in desperately-needed infrastructure aid over the next five years. 

The bill includes funding for a broad array of infrastructure projects, from drinking water systems and broadband to airports and public transportation. But the largest portion of West Virginia’s money will go toward roads and bridges.

But, while significant, the money can go only so far, and West Virginia’s road and bridge problems go a lot further. The state hasn’t fully-funded repairs for decades, leading to deteriorating bridges and crumbling roads throughout the nation’s sixth-largest highway system. And even the $3 billion slated to go to West Virginia’s roads over the next five years won’t be enough money to fully fund the additional $750 million a year in repairs a state plan recommended.

The effects are felt by West Virginians in places like Kanawha Falls in Fayette County. There, state transportation officials shut down the bridge connecting the small community to U.S. 60 due to damage. That was in 2018; the bridge is still closed.

Robert E. Pritt Jr. lives less than a mile from the bridge. He says the commute from his house in Kanawha Falls to Gauley Bridge, where he goes twice a month to pay bills and shop, used to be five minutes. Now it takes 45 minutes, forcing him to cross the Kanawha River all the way over in Montgomery, which can only be reached through a road that he says is hazardous. 

“[State officials] don’t care about us, even though we pay taxes,” he said. “If I had to call the law, somebody breaking in on me, trying to kill me, if I had to call the law by the time law got here I’d done be dead and probably halfway rotten.”

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, who represents the area, said he understands his constituents feel abandoned.  There hasn’t been enough money to go around to cover all infrastructure projects, and he said that smaller communities “always get the short end of the stick.”

“It is simply a less attractive project to [the state] because it serves fewer people and costs some significant amount,” he said. “What I try to impart to [the state] is the human toll. OK, it’s only a couple of dozen families. But that’s their life.”

And the longer infrastructure problems like those that ultimately closed the Kanawha Falls bridge go unaddressed, the harder and more expensive they are to fix.

“Every state — not just West Virginia — has kicked the can down the road and deferred maintenance,” said Dave Meadows, a civil engineer in Putnam County. “But we can’t catch it up in one, five-year increment. It’s going to take multiple increments of funding.”

Historic underinvestment 

Jimmy Wriston, West Virginia’s transportation secretary, says West Virginia has underinvested in its roads and bridges for decades. 

By 2012 it had gotten to the point where then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an executive order forming the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways. Made up of government officials, advocates and industry experts, the commission was tasked not only with studying the conditions and needs of the state’s highway system, but also the development of a long-term strategic plan to fund maintenance and expansion.

In 2015, the commission published its report. It found that if the state did not allocate any additional money annually for repairs, highway quality would “continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate and lead quickly to a very unsatisfactory level.”

It would take an additional $400 million a year — over what the state was already spending — to keep highway quality at its current level, the commission said, and an additional billion dollars annually for the system to “display little or no deficiencies and those that did exist would be on lower volume roads.”

Overall, the commission recommended the state spend $750 million more in repairs every year, an amount that West Virginia doesn’t have in the long term, even with the recent federal funding. 

But by 2020, 29% of the state’s major roads were still in poor condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card for West Virginia. That was higher than the U.S. average of 21%. 

In addition, of the nearly 7,000 bridges the West Virginia Division of Highways maintains, 21% are structurally deficient, according to the report card. The national average is 7%. 

A lot of repairs need to be made, and Meadows, who was a co-author of the ASCE report card, says the longer it takes to complete the repairs, the larger the cost grows.

“If you don’t take care of the [bridge’s problem], the bridge will continue to deteriorate,” Meadows said. “And then, naturally over time with inflation, the cost goes up as well.”

Any increase in price will be especially felt by West Virginia, which is among the few states that maintain most of the bridges within its borders, according to the report card, and it is one of only four states that maintain both state and county roads. 

And kicking the can down the road further on maintenance will be felt by West Virginians, too. One nonprofit group estimates that poor road conditions cost West Virginia motorists $825 million each year — more than $726 per motorist — due to vehicle depreciation, repair costs as well as increased fuel consumption and tire wear.  That number will likely only increase, as travel on the state’s roads and bridges is expected to increase significantly over the next few years, increasing wear and tear. 

Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a former member of the blue-ribbon commission, said figuring out how to fund West Virginia’s road and bridge repairs has long been a difficult issue. 

“The thing that I saw [when working on the commission] so much the time was everybody agreed on the need,” Clements said. “But the question came down is, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’”

Only so far…

The infrastructure bill will certainly help.

According to White House projections, West Virginia should expect to receive $3 billion for its highways from the infrastructure bill.

The bill sets aside at least another $506 million for state bridges, though West Virginia can apply for more though the $12.5 billion Bridge Investment Program, meant for “economically significant bridges,” and a different nearly $16 billion pot of money meant for major projects that “will deliver substantial economic benefits to communities.”

And that’s not all the money the state has to work with for roads and bridges. It will combine with the Division of Highways’ spending, which this fiscal year got $1.38 billion in the annual budget. This amount is made up of both state and federal money, but it’s not much more than the department got in 2015, when the blue-ribbon commission recommended that the state spend an additional $750 million dollars annually on road repairs.

There’s also $150 million in surplus money that the Legislature sent to road repairs in June, and the $50 million in state CARES Act money Justice controversially set aside for repairs in 202o. Plus, there’s Justice’s approximately $2.8 billion Roads to Prosperity program, funded by the gas tax, vehicle sales tax and bonds. Secretary Wriston said the program saved the state. Still, he said more long-term funding is needed for road and bridge infrastructure.

“Funding that is long-term and predictable is what’s required to create a modern, safe highway system,” he said. “Our infrastructure has to last a long time, so it deserves long-term funding.” 

The ASCE report card estimates that the cost for bridges alone — to replace, widen, strengthen and repair — would be around $2.9 billion. 

Sen. Baldwin said sustaining this kind of spending can be hard in West Virginia, largely because of the state’s small tax base. 

“We have a population problem in West Virginia, and our population problem is driving our revenue problem, which is driving our degrading infrastructure problem,” he said. “Long term, we’ve got to reverse our population trend in order to have enough people here that have enough revenue to sustain infrastructure.”

Sen. Clements said the answer of how to pay for this sort of long-term spending gets even more difficult when considering the future of transportation: as more people transition to hybrid and electric vehicles, the gas tax, the state road fund’s largest funding source, will become less productive.

“We need to be looking down the road now,” Clements said. 

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...