Friday, May 31, 2013

Blue Ribbon Commission Needs a Plan B

                In August 2012, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed members of the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways.  He charged that commission with determining the needs of the state’s highway program and evaluating the means to pay for the plan. 

                Recently, the commission reported that the Division of Highways needs about $1 billion additional revenue per year to properly maintain and improve roads and highways.  As for paying for it, the commission suggested raising various taxes by $400 million annually, leaving a huge gap between needs and funds.

                Good grief!  Pippi Longstocking could have mailed that plan in.  I expected more from a blue ribbon commission.  

                Fellow West Virginians, we cannot afford an additional $1 billion in highways expenditures each year.  We can’t even afford an annual $400 million increase in taxes.

                Now if the Marcellus shale starts producing a trillion barrels of crude oil each year, that’s different.  But barring a fracking miracle, we’re still a poor state.

                The blue ribbon commission owed it to the governor to posit that there must be a fundamental change in our highway philosophy.  From top to bottom, we need to question every aspect of our highway program.  We need to examine costs.  We need to examine priorities.  And we must question even the hint of perpetuating the status quo.

                This commission could have given Gov. Tomblin support to go to the people and ask them: “Do you want salted roads in winter, or do you want potholes patched in the spring?  You can’t have both.”

                It’s that simple.  We cannot have everything we want.  

                When I say we need to question highway costs, I mean every cost.  If the Division of Highways spends $500 on paper clips each year, then we need to ask why the division can’t get by on half that amount.

                The Division of Highways might very answer that question with: “Paper clips save money.  Removing staples is labor intensive.”

                Fine.  The question still needs asked and answered.

                The Division of Highways needs to question every aspect of its contracting methods as well as contract plans and specifications. 

The Division of Highways needs to ride herd on design engineers to save money, not build monuments.  

The Division of Highways needs to examine each and every position on the organization chart with an eye on efficient operation, not employing the politically faithful.

There will be public hearings about this subject in the coming months.  If you go to one, ask the state what it’s willing to give up or change before you get mesmerized by doubletalk and open your wallets.  Ask for an accounting of the books.  Ask what you, the taxpayer, get for your present taxes.

It has long been said that when it comes to highways, West Virginia has champagne tastes and a beer bottle budget.  This attitude has brought us to the present dilemma.

When I was fourteen, I walked into Ed’s Package Store on Milford Street in Clarksburg and bought my first six pack of beer.  I picked Pabst Blue Ribbon because I thought it had to be the best.  Ever since, whenever I see the words “blue ribbon”, I go into a mild stupor reminiscent of my teenage years.

Pippi, do you have a Plan B?