Federal Transportation Investment — Fundamental for America & West Virginia — But Leaders Need to Walk the Walk, Not Just Talk the Talk
West Virginia, which is carved into the rugged but beautiful Allegheny region and Appalachian mountains, has not been without its struggles in providing public services through the decades. But its leaders are reimagining and reframing West Virginia, with surface transportation at the core of those efforts.
The state also is positioned to address the unceasing call to reinvest in, and devise sustainable funding, to construct adaptive and modern transportation infrastructure in the United States. West Virginia’s U.S. Senators, moderate Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican pragmatist Shelley Moore Capito, sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“From our Chamber of Commerce point of view, a federal infrastructure bill is a very, very high priority,” says Steve Roberts, President of the 85-year-old West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “We view it as something that is likely to have bipartisan support. It is likely to help unite the country around a project or series of projects in which we can take pride and which we recognize we need, and in which we can see the actual, tangible material benefit of our work.”
Eyes are on Manchin and Capito to help cement a deal between Congress and the Biden Administration to get a multi-year infrastructure bill that can create jobs, advance projects, and certainly benefit West Virginia. News just hit that the state leads the nation in the largest percentage of bridges in poor condition, according to an analysis by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2020 National Bridge Inventory (NBI) database.
“West Virginia’s infrastructure is one of its greatest assets and most important responsibilities,” agrees Mike Clowser, Executive Director of the Contractors Association of West Virginia. “A critical underpinning of our state’s economic future is the safety, security and stability of our roads and bridges. … Most every major highway or bridge project in West Virginia requires federal funding as part of the financing package in order for it to be constructed.”
Local and federal measures demonstrate how indispensable certain legislative funding streams and fiscal generators are. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s $2.8 billion Roads to Prosperity program, with voters approving a $1.6 billion bond initiative in 2017 and a motor fuels tax increase for capital projects, was a turning point, but so was the yet-completed 13-state Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS), which was seeded almost 60 years ago.
The 3,090-mile ADHS is a federal and state departments of transportation (DOTs) undertaking to build highways and corridors that integrate Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia as well provide safe access to parts of America’s most isolated and geographically rich areas.
Since 1993, lawmakers have not raised the federal gas tax (the source devised to fund highways, bridges and public transit) or updated a user-fee funding mechanism. But in that time, the U.S. has seen an ultraviolet light that purifies water, the Predator Drone, Google, Wi-Fi, the Human Genome Map, iPod, the Bio-Artificial Liver, social media platforms, the lab-grown burger, Tesla, three-dimensional ocean farms, Uber and SpaceX.1
Infrastructure proponents know that’s not acceptable. Without good transportation, America pauses. Without ample federal investment, it can stall. “All facets of the country’s transportation network, which are old and increasingly globally surpassed, must be reliably funded and significantly updated,” says Ed Mortimer, Executive Director of the Americans for Transportation Mobility (ATM) Coalition.
In the first-ever Report Card released by the West Virginia Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in December 2020, grades of D+ were given for both the state’s bridges and roads. In February of this year, the national transportation research nonprofit TRIP reported that West Virginia motorists lose $1.6 billion per year due to roads and bridges that are deteriorated, congested or lack some desirable safety features.
Transportation = Economic Development = the American Dream
In West Virginia, those close to power centers see that economic development and partnerships to help rebuild (not just resurface) weather-worn transportation infrastructure are incubators for change. They connect states, open up tourism, stimulate job growth, and elevate people’s lives and access to resources.
A Sept. 30, 2020, status report from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) listed economic-development benefits of completing the system, including:
- As of 2015, annual travel time and reliability savings due to ADHS corridor investments are estimated to be 360 million hours per year;
- System completion to date had led to the creation of 168,000 added jobs and over $11 billion in annual Gross Regional Product (GRP) growth as of 2015;
- The most recent assessed value of transportation cost savings and productivity gains amounts to $10.7 billion per year. This benefits the entire U.S. economy because 20 percent of car vehicle hours saved and 31 percent of freight truck vehicle hours saved are tied to trips with at least one end located outside of the 13 states; and
- Improvements in market accessibility for the Appalachian Region will directly lead to economic-development opportunities, with the area gaining upwards of $2.6 billion in value-added, due to market accessibility gains by 2045.