The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 3, 2014

Federal road fund cuts may hurt W.Va.

The State Department of Transportation is in full-blown construction and repair season, with orange cones along roadways and personnel in neon green so they are visible to motorists.

All their eyes, however, are on Washington, D.C., as the Federal Highways Trust Fund dwindles, and states must wait for Congress to act.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has sent letters to state transportation departments warning of the “impending insolvency” of the fund. Foxx said that Congress still has time to act.

“Our transportation infrastructure is too essential to suffer continued neglect, and I hope Congress will avert this crisis before it is too late,” Foxx said in a media release.

It’s not the first time West Virginia has had to be in “preparedness mode,” according to DOT communications director Brent Walker.

“We haven’t identified why this feels different,” Walker said. “Maybe the fund wasn’t this low before.”

He said if the fund reaches $4 billion, the Federal Highway Trust Fund will delay payments to the states. Under normal circumstances, the states pay contractors and are then reimbursed within two weeks, he said.

“Any further delay of reimbursement would put our cash flow in a fairly critical state,” Walker said. “If we don’t see improvement by Aug. 1, they’ll go into delayed payment scenario and we’re going to have to take a step back.”

That “step back” means that the next few months of prime road construction season could mean idled pavers and idled workers. The DOT would:

— Halt all active road projects, both construction and paving

— Halt advertising of new projects

— Halt awarding of any recently advertised projects

— Take a look at staffing

Among the projects that could be delayed because of the highway fund’s insolvency are the East Beckley Bypass, W.Va. 10 between Man and Logan, Corridor H, the Coalfields Expressway, U.S. 35 and the Mileground Project in Morgantown, Walker said.

A reduction amounts to an annual 30 percent, but because construction season in West Virginia is so short — six months — it will actually reduce the federal contribution by 50 percent since “we spend more money in six months than we do in 12,” Walker said.

Walker said he is optimistic that Congress will take action before the situation becomes too critical for states.

“We have no reason to think Congress is not going to come up with a solution, as important as this nation’s infrastructure is,” he said. “We’re hoping we see a long-term solution.”

Optimism in West Virginia aside, other states have already begun to cut back their programs, Walker said.

Congressman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said Tuesday evening that even though “partisan feuds” in Congress have stalled other legislation, he thinks the trust fund will be kept afloat, at least in the short term.

Rahall is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation, which decides how to distribute highways funds. The House Ways and Means Committee will move the legislation to fund the FHTF.

“(T)emporary patches are not a path to progress,” Rahall said. “We ultimately need to buckle down, come together and pass a robust, long-term surface transportation bill.”

Rahall noted that other nations, like China, are building infrastructure.

“We need to step up and invest in our own nation or risk putting ourselves, our businesses and our industries at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace.”

— E-mail: ppritt@register-herald.com

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