West Virginia has many road projects that have been long promised but never completed. Some are actually seeing progress, like Route 35 in Mason and Putnam counties, which is on schedule to be fully upgraded. Others, like the King Coal Highway, Coalfields Expressway and Tolsia Highway remain in various stages of completion — or lack thereof.
Nearly every day, West Virginians ask me to help find a solution to this critical issue. I hear about a road that’s unsafe, a highway that’s incomplete, or a bridge that fails to meet safety standards. I agree — funding our transportation infrastructure must be a priority. I want my family and every West Virginia family to drive on safe, well-maintained roads and bridges.
Help is on the way. Just days ago, the House and Senate passed a fully funded, five-year highway bill — the FAST Act — that will bring billions of dollars to West Virginia to fix our roads and invest in our future. The president has signed this into law, which means that Congress has achieved something that hasn’t been done in a decade — passing a multi-year highway bill. We also ensured that the FAST Act is fully paid for without increasing the gas tax, a tax increase many West Virginians oppose in these tough economic times.
The need for the FAST Act and the money it will bring is great. There’s no debating the fact that our roads and bridges are in poor shape. According to a May 2015 national transportation study, West Virginia ranks the fifth worst in the nation for rural pavement conditions. That means 29 percent of our rural roads are considered unfit for travel.
Our bridges aren’t any better. The Federal Highway Administration reports that 35 percent of our states bridges — more than 2,500 bridges — are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
The FAST Act will bring nearly $2.5 billion in transportation funding to West Virginia over the next five years, which will go a long way to building new roads, repairing existing roads, and fixing our dilapidated bridges. This fiscal year alone, West Virginia will receive more than $420 million, and that amount will grow every year for the duration of this law.
The lack of a long-term highway bill has tied the hands of our state highway department. Without knowing that funds will be there for years to come, highway officials have held off on many major projects. Roads are not built overnight — they require years of planning and consistent, reliable funding. This bill provides just that.
It also allows states to use federal funds for local bridges, many of which are in rural areas. Previously, it was difficult for states to get approval to use Highway Trust Fund dollars to pay for bridges that are not part of the federal highway system, meaning that most of the bridges in our district could not be fixed with these federal funds. Because of the FAST Act, West Virginia will be able to use these funds to fix many of the bridges we have that fail to meet safety standards.
The FAST Act also includes several provisions that will make railways safer, something that’s in all of our minds after the Mount Carbon derailment at the beginning of the year. It improves safety standards for both new and existing railroad tank cars, making them better protected in the event of a derailment or accident. The law also increases funding for highway-railroad grade crossings, which will make West Virginians safer as they drive across the at-grade train crossings across our district.
Instead of making spending decisions in Washington, the FAST Act gives money to the states to decide which projects will be built and prioritized. I know the people of southern West Virginia want to see highway dollars invested in their backyards, and I will be fighting for these projects and for the Third District to receive its fair share. It will be up to all of us to let those in Charleston know about the roads, bridges and projects in the Third District that we want to be completed with this money.
As a member of Congress, I’m dedicated to being part of solutions that work for West Virginia. This highway bill makes meaningful investments in our roads and bridges while allowing us to plan for our state’s long-term needs. Smart investments in our highways and bridges will help keep and bring good-paying jobs to our towns and communities. If West Virginia is to get its economy back on track, we must make sure the way there is safe.
Congressman Evan Jenkins represents West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.