Report: Rural WV roads, bridges among worst in nation

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By Phil Kabler, Staff writer

West Virginia has some of the most deteriorated and dangerous rural roads in America, a new report by the Washington-based national transportation research group TRIP shows.

Released Tuesday, the report found that 29 percent of the Mountain State’s rural, non-interstate roads are in poor condition — the sixth-worst ranking in the United States — and that West Virginia has the seventh-highest rural-road death rate, at 2.61 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles, a fatal-accident rate that’s more than double that of other state roads.

In a national conference call Tuesday, representatives of TRIP, AAA and other organizations said it is a “national imperative” that Congress and the states adequately fund the country’s transportation systems.

“All levels of government have a role to play in making transportation improvements,” said Rocky Moretti, director of research and policy for TRIP.

The TRIP report found that 15 percent of all rural roads in the United States are in poor condition, and 11 percent of all rural bridges are structurally deficient. Poor roads, Moretti said, pose a “significant impediment to the quality of life and economic strength of rural America.”

In West Virginia, 13 percent of all rural route bridges are deficient, ranking it in a tie for 14th-worst state.

Moretti said bridges with structural deficiencies, while technically safe to use, often have to operate with weight restrictions, which can hamper rural economies, which predominately rely on agriculture and energy industries.

Kathleen Bower, vice president of public affairs for AAA, said Congress and state governments must address an “imminent transportation funding crisis.”

“We know nobody wants to vote for a gas tax increase or anything that will hit Americans in the pocketbook,” she said, “but we know it’s a very necessary thing.”

Instead of approving a new comprehensive surface-transportation program, Congress for years has passed multiple funding extensions, which Bower decried as a “payday-loan” method of funding the nation’s transportation needs.

“It is up to Congress to pass a fully funded, long-term bill to improve our nation’s rural roads before the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money this summer,” she said.

If Congress fails to act, the trust fund will be out of money as of May 31.

The TRIP report comes on the eve of the long-delayed release of the final recommendations of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways. In preliminary recommendations released in September 2013, the panel called for at least $600 million a year in increased state funding for West Virginia highways, with a key component being the issuance of a $1 billion road bond to be funded by keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike through 2049.

The preliminary report drew harsh criticism from many legislators, and the issuance of the final report was repeatedly postponed. Most recently, a September 2014 release date was pushed back to December, and then indefinitely postponed, until an announcement last week that the report would be released on Wednesday.

Administration Secretary Jason Pizatella, who serves as chairman of the commission, said last week that the recommendations in the final report are essentially unchanged from the preliminary proposals.

In a statement regarding the TRIP report, Carol Fulks, chairwoman of West Virginians for Better Transportation, noted that neighboring Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania have acted to raise revenue for their transportation infrastructure needs.

“West Virginia should also step up to the plate, to develop additional revenue sources to give the West Virginia Division of Highways the ability to plan for improvements, expansions and other major programs, to ensure our safety, mobility and quality of life,” Fulks said.

The TRIP report, which analyzed Federal Highway Administration data from 2013 and 2014, found that Michigan has the worst rural roads, with 37 percent in poor condition, and that Pennsylvania has the highest percentage of structurally deficient rural bridges, at 25 percent.

Connecticut has the most dangerous rural roads, with a rural-road fatality rate of 3.57 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, followed by South Carolina, at 3.4, according to the report.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.