BUCKHANNON — If approved Saturday, the road bond will drive economic development in Upshur County and throughout the state, a Department of Highways official told the Buckhannon Rotary Club last Tuesday.
Brian Cooper, district engineer/manager for District 7 of the DOH, briefed the club on the ins and outs of Gov. Jim Justice’s Roads to Prosperity Special Amendment, which voters can weigh in on this Saturday, Oct. 7, during a special election. Cooper’s presentation was entitled, “Roads to Prosperity: The Centerpiece of Economic Recovery for West Virginia.”
“The reason for that name was when Governor Justice took office, he identified the need to try to spur economic growth in West Virginia, and the centerpiece for that is highways,” Cooper said. “We did have a lot of needs in our highway system, and there’s a lot of work to be done. Secondly and more importantly, economic recovery is the direct result of job growth or job creation. They felt the need to do this recovery now, not later.”
The Oct. 7 referendum will allow voters to decide whether the state will issue and sell $1.6 billion in state bonds to fund road repairs and construction. Should it pass, the road bond amendment will finance more than 600 projects in all 55 West Virginia counties, according to Justice’s website.
“We have something that we think is going to generate a lot of jobs and fix a lot of roads and it’s there in all 55 counties,” Cooper said. “Everybody gets something.” Justice has claimed that according to one formula, the road bond amendment could produce as many as 48,000 new jobs.
Cooper said there will be four installments of general obligation bonds.
“There’s $1.6 billion worth of potential there,” he said. “Now, we can’t get all that work out in one year, so the way the legislation is written, we’re going to have to have four installments over four years. The ones that are immediately ready to go, we’re going to push out the first year.”
The first installment is comprised of over $700 million in projects, Cooper said.
“These are some of the bigger projects,” Cooper said, which include: widening of U.S. Route 340, widening of W.Va. Route 2, paving of Coalfields Expressway, paving and addition of bridges to Interstate 70, widening of Interstate 77, widening of Interstate 64 Nitro St. Albans, paving and work on the interchange of U.S. Route 35, work on the Tolsia Highway from Prichard and of local interest, a redesign of the southbound exit 99 at the interchange of Interstate 79 and U.S. Route 33 in Weston.
But just how will these new projects spur job growth?
“The two things I’m going to put out here is first, they can create immediate jobs here,” Cooper said. “The obvious is the ones for construction. The things that people tend to overlook are indirect jobs – it takes materials to build these roads and bridges, you’ve got concrete suppliers, you’ve got tools, you’ve got vendors.”
In addition, if people have jobs, they’ll be more likely to carry money in their pockets, which they will spend in local shops, restaurants and convenience stores, according to Cooper.
“It will absolutely not raise your taxes,” Cooper said, referring to a common myth circulating regarding the road bond. “That’s already been done.” Senate Bill 1006, which hiked DMV fees, the gas tax and the vehicle sales tax, went into effect July 1.
Cooper said he frequently fields the question, “What if the road bond doesn’t pass?”
If the road bond fails, it will be a missed opportunity for economic growth and the opportunity to sell general obligation bonds will fade away.
“Then, we will have to go back and reevaluate and prioritize our projects and work with the money we’ve got on hand,” Cooper said. “Also, there is a cost to doing nothing. The Federal Highway Administration has tracked construction costs over the last 13 years and they’ve gone up by 65 percent.
“What I’ve been told by the finance people is that the bonds they’re looking at, the rates are favorable right now – somewhere between the 3 to 3.5 percent range,” Cooper added, “so overall, if we do this work up front and first, with low interest rates on the bond, we can kind of cheat inflation a little bit and actually save money over the long haul. Without it (road bond amendment passage), we will end up paying more.” Moreover, West Virginians will continue to drive on dangerous roads, and roads and bridges will further deteriorate, Cooper said.
Polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7. Today is the last day to vote early.