Reporter’s Notebook: A Rocky Road
If there is one thing most governors of West Virginia know, the best way to get inside the hearts of people is to make sure their roads are maintained.
Govs. Cecil Underwood and Arch Moore knew this. Apparently, Gov. Jim Justice is just now getting the message.
Justice is right to feel somewhat angry that he’s the one getting an earful on condition of roads. In order for the secondary roads, and even the interstate highways and bridges, to be as bad as they are, former governors Joe Manchin and Earl Ray Tomblin dropped the ball somewhere along the line.
The bad budget years didn’t start hitting the state really until 2014, so what were we doing between 2004 and 2010 when Manchin was in office, or between 2010 and 2016 when Tomblin piloted the ship of state? No doubt Justice inherited a problem, but it’s his turn to be the chief executive of the state and the ball is in his basketball court.
Yet, at Justice’s Wednesday press conference to announce his “plan” for secondary road maintenance (to paraphrase Star Lord from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” he has part of a plan), you’d think he bears no responsibility. According to Justice, it’s Manchin’s fault for selling off road maintenance equipment and Tomblin had no money, plus we were in the hole when Justice came in in 2017.
Justice has several bad habits. One is obvious: he isn’t here, and he delegates almost exclusively to a very small handful of people. Another is he constantly blames whoever proceeded him. You can get away with that within your first year in office. It becomes a harder sell three years in with 10 months left before a re-election campaign. What are you going to do in 2020, campaign on the slogan of “It’s Not My Fault”?
Another bad habit for Justice is reacting to issues instead of acting. The secondary road issue is not new and has been building since the end of Tomblin’s term. Many thought that the Roads to Prosperity program, approved by a mere 11 percent of registered voters in October 2017, would help provide funding for major road infrastructure projects to free up more of the State Road Fund for secondary road maintenance.
Justice is now getting it from all sides: those who expected an increase in secondary road maintenance and haven’t seen it; and those who were expecting one of the major Roads to Prosperity projects, but see some backpedaling by this administration. People in Wheeling, for example, were expecting their multi-bridge repair project along I-70 to be bid out and underway. That project is being redesigned to lower the cost after bids were higher than expected.
And that’s how Justice is reacting: to show the public that he is hearing their concerns and taking action, he proposed taking money from multiple sources for secondary road maintenance.
He’s so serious about getting this done that he fired Tom Smith, his Department of Transportation secretary with actual highways engineering experience, and he replaced him with a guy who helped run some of Justice’s companies. Yes, the same companies that can’t pay bills and taxes.
One of the ways Justice plans to get more secondary road funding is by redesigning Roads to Prosperity projects to limit the scope and skimming the saved money. In short, he’s taking Roads to Prosperity bond money, meant exclusively for major road infrastructure projects, and using that to fill potholes and clean culverts.
That’s not how that money is supposed to be used. It’s also not likely something a bond agency would have approved had it known this was a possibility. Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy didn’t directly answer my question on what they were told by bond rating agencies; only that he had been in contact with attorneys and will continue to consult with them.
Multiple sources have told me that Smith disagreed with skimming road bond money for secondary roads and refused to sign off on the proposal. During a heated argument with Justice senior adviser Bray Cary, Cary fired Smith.
If Smith says you can’t use road bond money this way, I can’t really doubt him on these issues considering his background with the Federal Highway Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission. He has yet to address the press since his firing, but I hope he sets the record straight.
Justice first mentioned using road bond money in his State of the State at the beginning of January. The fact he is just now presenting this plan should tell you there is pushback internally. Luckily, the plan is so abstract enough that I expect this to change again.