- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia leaders aren’t thrilled by suggestions to raise taxes, tolls and fees to fix the state’s roughed-up roads, particularly as they approach a feisty election year.

But with federal highways cash still running dry, some top officials won’t completely rule out increases for the next legislative session starting in January.

“We have to consider everything,” said Senate President Bill Cole, a Mercer County auto dealer and the top Republican candidate for governor. “To just make some blanket statement that, ‘No that’s off the table,’ I learned in business a long time ago: Never say never. Never is a long, long time.”

For West Virginia, transportation woes seem to be less about the gridlock gripping metro areas nationwide and more about structural woes.

According to U.S. Census data from 2013, workers in the Huntington metro area take 23.8 minutes to commute to work, while Charleston metro commuters averaged a 23.1-minute trip. The national average was 25.8 minutes.

The Martinsburg-Hagerstown, Maryland metro area topped the national commute time average by about four minutes. In that area, however, more than 1 in 5 workers are traveling out of state to their jobs, including Washington commuters. Workers who carpooled averaged a 38.2-minute ride, while those hopping a train or other public transportation were on it for 76.8 minutes on average.

Last month, the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways assembled by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin dealt what could be an unsavory set of revenue-raising suggestions before a testy election next year.

House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, cautioned against raising more money.

“It would be difficult for the people of our state to bear additional tax burdens, so we need to make road funding a priority within our budget and work toward creative solutions,” Armstead said.

The governor’s panel suggested that tolls continue on the 88-mile turnpike that runs through four southern counties instead of disappearing in 2019 as scheduled.

It also calls for toll increases of 10 percent to 25 percent effective July 2016, depending on the amount of bonds sold, while rates for passenger cars with E-ZPass accounts would remain unchanged for five years. Turnpike drivers now pay $2 at each booth, and commercial vehicles pay $6.75.

The report suggests hikes to other taxes on drivers, several of which haven’t been raised in decades. It also calls for a 50-cent increase to the cigarette tax.

Altogether, the commission called for $419.8 million more each year in the state road fund. That’s still short of the extra $1.7 billion annually the report says could be needed to maintain and expand the highway system.

“It’s going to take a buy-in from both parties,” said Tomblin, a Democrat who is hitting his two-term limit in office. “It’s going to take a buy-in from both houses of the Legislature.”

Cole and Armstead said the Republican-led Legislature is going to comb through a new audit of the Division of Highways it ordered this year. First and foremost, lawmakers are going to look for misuse or abuse of taxpayer money to free up cash for roads, he said.

However, road and infrastructure needs are too critical to slam the door immediately on any option, Cole said.

The Blue Ribbon report said more than one-third of West Virginia’s major roads are either in poor or mediocre condition. About 35 percent of 7,000 bridges need repair, improvement or replacement.

Driving on rough roads costs state motorists an extra $400 million annually, or $333 a year per driver. That accounts for faster vehicle depreciation, additional repair costs, using more gas and tire wear.

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