Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

July 2, 2012

House legislation would secure highway funding for two years

BLUEFIELD — With federal transportation earmarks off the table, officials with local highway authorities are hoping project funding will come from the federal highway bill recently passed by Congress.

A two-year federal highway bill was passed by the House on Friday after being sent for a vote from U.S. Senate earlier in the week. The bill will mean additional funding for state departments of transportation, but not necessarily for highway projects. Much of the funds allotted to the states will first go for routine maintenance before new construction.

Mike Mitchem, executive director of the King Coal Highway Authority, said the embargo on earmarking federal funds means the highway bill is one of the few chances transportation projects have for funding.

“The Senate and House have been working together to iron out a plan, so we are hopeful we will see something positive,” Mitchem said. “I am hoping that they will approve a considerable amount. Since they are no longer doing earmarks, they will be awarding funds to the Department of Transportation who will then award funds to projects they think are worthy. We are hopeful we will be one of those projects. I am certain U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall and Sens. Manchin and Rockefeller will work to secure funding for us as they have in the past. They have worked very hard to fund needed projects like this in West Virginia.”

West Virginia transportation officials will also be traveling to Washington in the early fall to petition for project funding, Mitchem said.

“When we the authority goes to D.C. we do ask for a certain amount of project for each project, which will come through the department of highways,” Mitchem said. “The Senate and House will make the final decision on how much the Department of Transportation can allot. We usually ask for the $66 million to complete the project when we will be going in September. We will ask them for so much money for Mercer, McDowell, Mingo and Wayne counties.”

West Virginia State Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, serves as executive director of the Coalfields Expressway and said West Virginia will get some additional funding as part of rural highway designations included in the bill.

“They have reached a compromise and I have talked with people in Washington on the legislation,” Browning said. “What I understand is it reserves the current funding levels for two years. This is what we expected. The transportation bill encompasses all the transportation in the country. For the rural highways, it means West Virginia gets special funds for highway construction that will be about the same amount they have been receiving. What we have to do now is make sure the Coalfields Expressway gets some of that special designated money. A lot of the money will have to go for bridges, repairs, about $40 million will be allotted to highway projects. We need to make sure we get our share of that.”

Browning said the agreement to suspend federal earmarks have cost highway and transportation projects nationwide.

“The Coalfields Expressway, King Coal Highway and other projects have lived off federal earmarks,” Browning said. “If you take those funds away and the state has to prioritize discretionary project, you don’t have much money left for highway projects. We have been fortunate in the past, but I want to see us move up. Our work now is to work to try and get some of those discretionary funds. I’m very pleased that our West Virginia delegation has been on transportation committees and have worked to get what funding they have.”  

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., serves as the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said federal funding will bring $420 million annually to West Virginia for the next two years.

“This bill preserves highway investment levels for all states, including West Virginia, enabling them to tackle crumbling roadways and deficient bridges. No state suffers a funding cut,” Rahall said. “The states and highway contractors will now have the ability to count on a stable source of funding, sustaining and creating jobs, and enhancing the mobility and safety of American motorists.”      

 Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation sand said the surface transportation bill will positively impact highway projects and roads in West Virginia.

“This surface transportation bill was the result of a lot of hard work and compromise,” Rockefeller said. “While no major bill is perfect, I’m thrilled this agreement will keep funding levels for West Virginia highways secure and strong for the next two years. This agreement helps West Virginia plan for the future of its highways while creating and preserving jobs. Throughout this legislative process I’ve stressed to colleagues that our nation’s infrastructure needs improvements to keep Americans safe on our roads and bridges. I’m pleased this bill addresses those concerns moving forward.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the highway bill passed the Senate due to cooperation across party lines.

“Investing in infrastructure isn’t a Democratic idea or a Republican idea — it’s an American idea,” Manchin said. “While this measure is not perfect, I am pleased that my colleagues were able to work together across party lines to reach an agreement. When it comes to infrastructure and all of our critical priorities, our states are counting on us to work on long-term legislation to give them the maximum amount of certainty and planning time — we simply cannot afford to just kick the can down the road with short-term extensions that take us month to month.

Manchin said the two-year highway bill will also create needed jobs in the state.

“Each and every one of us has highway, transit and safety projects in our states that are a critical source of jobs and economic growth,” Manchin said. “I will support this bill with my friends on both sides of the aisle to make sure we protect those jobs. Finally, I am pleased that this legislation has helped us resolve the looming student loan interest rate crisis, so that students in West Virginia and around the nation will not see their interest rates double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1.”

U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said the transportation bill also has the power to impact road projects such as the Coalfields Expressway in Virginia, which would go through Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties.

“Millions of Virginians rely on the Commonwealth’s roadways and transit systems every single day,” Webb said. “The passage of this critical conference report will ensure that Virginia can continue to improve its aging transportation infrastructure and also provide job security for local construction workers, who have experienced a particularly high unemployment rate. This legislation will have a positive impact across the state from the congested roadways of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to those who depend on rural highways from Central to Southwest Virginia.”

— Contact Kate Coil at

kcoil@bdtonline.com

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