- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:

Feb. 4

Charleston (West Virginia) Daily Mail on Uber:

A decade ago, no one had conceived of alternatives to taxi companies for cheap and convenient city transportation. Such is the world we live in that a decade from now, those very companies may be obsolete.

As the Daily Mail has previously reported, ride-hailing car services like Uber and Lyft could be coming to West Virginia cities like Charleston and Morgantown in the near future.

The innovative services use smartphone technology to connect riders with drivers and allow for cashless transactions. They’re hugely popular across the country, including states bordering West Virginia.

Proposed bills in the state Legislature seek to iron out important details about how the new companies might be insured and regulated here.

A central disagreement is whether drivers would be subject to oversight from the Division of Motor Vehicles or, alternatively, the Public Service Commission. The latter could regulate rates for rides, potentially eliminating one of the biggest benefits for riders and drivers: dynamic pricing, which allows rates to adapt to market conditions moment-by-moment.

Existing transportation services will push for strict regulation of the newcomers. Fair enough. But policymakers should bear in mind that businesses often claim to be advocating for “an even playing field,” when what they’d really like is for licensing regimes to squash new, alternative products and services.

It may turn out to make sense to subject ride-hailing services to the PSC, but the mere fact that they compete with taxi services is not in and of itself a sufficient reason to do so.

This could be a good opportunity for lawmakers to take a look at how the state regulates transportation services generally. It could be time to update some requirements and practices.

If new ride-hailing services offer customers advantages over traditional taxi companies, then we’ll all benefit from letting them take root and flourish here. Let a thousand Ubers bloom.




Feb. 4

The Register-Herald, Bleckley, West Virginia, on greyhound racing:

A report last week from Spectrum Gaming Group, a gambling research outfit, found that greyhound racing in West Virginia is turning into a money-loser.

The Spectrum study found that casino video lottery profits make up 95 percent of the state’s greyhound racing revenue, and not actual track betting.

In the last 10 years, the study found, wagering on greyhounds at the state’s two tracks has dropped by 55 percent, from $35 million in 2004 to $15.8 million in 2013.

West Virginia’s two greyhound tracks aren’t alone. Nationally, between 2001 and 2011, the total amount gambled on dog racing declined by 67 percent.

West Virginia, in addition to the two dog tracks, has two horse racing tracks. At one time, they were the only venues to place a legal bet, if one wanted to gamble.

Now, of course, the state has five casinos in which to gamble, including The Casino Club at The Greenbrier.

This evolution of casinos into the mainstream has dramatically changed the landscape for dog and horse tracks.

The dog tracks were already having revenue issues in the 1980s and 1990s. They lobbied state lawmakers to allow slot machines at the tracks, and in 1994 were rewarded for their efforts with the Racetrack Video Lottery Act.

It wasn’t enough. In 2007, the Legislature passed the West Virginia Lottery Racetrack Table Games Act to allow casino games at the tracks.

Apparently, at least according to Spectrum, that isn’t enough, either.

The state also helps dog tracks by programs including some that benefit breeders. Some call these subsidies, but greyhound track officials say since the sums come from track purses, they are not.

Sam Burdette, president of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association, is one of them.

But we admire Burdette for his candor. Asked about the Spectrum study, he conceded that things look pretty grim for dog tracks.

“The perception, especially in the Legislature, is that it’s a dying industry and to most extent it is,” he told WV MetroNews.

The problem is, Burdette thinks that once the dog track owners lobbied successfully to get slot machines and casino games, people invested in the tracks and if the state pulls its breeder subsidy and other benefit programs that it just wouldn’t be fair.

To make things right, Spectrum suggested a buyout of the dog track industry in West Virginia. That buyout would cost state taxpayers a cool $75 million to make greyhound racing go away.

That dog won’t hunt.

It isn’t the state’s responsibility, or that of us taxpayers, to underwrite businesses that are no longer in fashion and can’t make it financially.

It that was the case, we’d still see Studebakers on car dealers’ lots.

Over the years, people’s tastes change, even when it comes to gambling.

Greyhound industry owners and officials in West Virginia need to accept that their time is past.




Feb. 2

Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, West Virginia on pipeline study:

People in the West Virginia community of Sissonville saw firsthand just how powerful a natural gas pipeline explosion can be in December 2012. A huge fireball melted a stretch of I-77, destroyed three homes and damaged several others.

Others have taken notice, too. That incident and two others elsewhere in the nation in the last few years were served up as illustrations in a federal safety agency’s report this week about how the oversight of the natural gas pipelines that run across the country should be improved, both at the federal and the state level. Regulators in Washington should take note, as well as state agencies in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, because states also play a role in keeping the public safe from such accidents.

In its report, the National Transportation Safety Board said its investigation of the explosion near Sissonville and ones in Palm City, Florida, and San Bruno, California, exposed deficiencies with the pipeline companies’ programs for ensuring their pipelines were safe and reliable. Also identified as a concern was the oversight of pipeline safety by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the report said.

The government implemented an “integrity management” program to improve pipeline safety a decade ago, and that effort helped slow what had been a trend of increasing accidents in more populated areas. However, the rate of incidents in more populous areas over the last 10 years has not declined. So the board undertook a review.

The board found that in each of the three highlighted accidents, the gas companies failed to conduct inspections or tests that might have revealed weaknesses in the pipelines. The pipeline in the Sissonville explosion had not been inspected in 24 years, according to the board’s report.

Safety also was compromised because there either were no automatic or remotely controlled valves to shut off quickly the gas that was fueling the resulting fires or a shut-off valve had failed to close.

The board also noted the important role that state regulators have and raised questions about the effectiveness of their efforts. In the past decade, state-regulated pipelines - or those that don’t cross state borders - have experienced an incident rate 27 percent higher than interstate pipelines regulated by federal agencies, according to the report. The board contends that federal-to-state and state-to-state coordination between inspectors is lacking.

That should be of particular concern to West Virginia officials and residents. The safety board notes that aging pipes made out of cast iron and steel are more susceptible to deterioration, and that pipes installed before 1970 were of a particular concern. A review of federal databases last fall found that more than a quarter of gas lines in the Mountain State are made of cast iron and bare steel, or nearly four times the national average. More than 46 percent of gas mains in the state were installed before 1970, compared with a national average of 40 percent.

Considering those heightened risks, the safety board’s recommendation for states to adopt more thorough pipeline inspection methods and to ensure state inspectors have sufficient expertise should be of particular interest to West Virginia officials. The state’s regulatory agencies also should be ready to get on board with the safety board’s recommendation for federal and state inspectors to work more closely with each other.

The explosion in Sissonville provided a graphic warning that pipeline explosions can be devastating - and state and federal agencies should do all they can to prevent them.



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