W.Va. Has The Nation's 6th-Largest Transportation System; Tackling Its Challenges Will Cost Billions
From 2010 to 2018, Berkeley County, West Virginia has grown in population by nearly 13,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That’s more than 1,500 new people each year. While population growth can be a great thing – it adds to the economy and the workforce – it also takes a toll on roads.
Route 9 West in the Eastern Panhandle stretches 27 miles from Martinsburg to Berkeley Springs.
It’s a busy road, home to large commercial operations such as a Macy’s distribution center, FedEx and General Motors as well as residential homes, farms and smaller businesses.
The small, rural two-lane expressway carries a lot of traffic daily. With a speed limit that’s between 45 and 55 miles per hour, it’s often backed up during peak traffic times and sees a fair amount of accidents.
“We’re getting slammed up here, and we need some major help,” said Elaine Mauck, a Berkeley County Council member who has been vocal about her concern over Route 9 West.
“People fail to realize the big issue about Berkeley County is we are within 500 miles, any way you shake it, of two thirds of the population of the United States,” she said. “That's why we are attracting business and people.”
Route 9 West began experiencing its boom in use about 10 years ago, Mauck said, and the congestion is only worsening as more drivers use the road.
Mauck isn’t alone in her concern over Route 9 West. Many residents in the area, including the Berkeley County Development Authority’s Executive Director Sandy Hamilton, share concerns over the road.
“I live in a subdivision off of Route 9 West,” Hamilton said. “So, I travel it every day, and I can tell you that if I'm finishing up something at 5:00 p.m., I may as well stay here until 6:00, because I'm just going to be in Route 9 stopped traffic waiting.”
Hamilton said it can sometimes take her 40 minutes to go six miles during peak traffic times.
The road is also vastly important to development, and Hamilton notes the Berkeley County Development Authority has about 50 acres of available grounds in that area the agency can use to sell to potential businesses.
And along with education and workforce, Hamilton said road infrastructure is just as important to businesses.
“Much of what we have is because of being on this I-81 corridor. It's a nice interstate system, but the other roads that feed it have to be adequate as well,” Hamilton said.
Road Challenges Throughout W.Va.
Road challenges like this in Berkeley County are not unique in West Virginia.
Counties across the state are struggling with road issues – especially in high traffic counties, like Monongalia, Kanawha, Cabell and Ohio. Kanawha County sees the highest level of traffic in the state, according to the West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH).
During the 2019 West Virginia Legislative session, there was heightened tension and passionate floor speeches about the condition of roads. Discussions around the subject grew so loud that the West Virginia DOH made a point to improve transparency after the session ended by creating a list of all secondary road projects in the state.
More recently, the DOH created an interactive, online map that shows both primary and secondary road projects throughout the state.
Aaron Gillispie, the chief engineer for the West Virginia DOH, said West Virginia has one of the largest transportation systems in the country based on the number of miles of road in the state.
“We’re little old West Virginia, but we are the sixth largest,” Gillispie said. The state has 36,000 miles of roadway, largely maintained by the Division of Highways.
In West Virginia, only 14,000 miles of roadway are eligible for federal dollars. The rest must come from state tax dollars like tolls, DMV fees and gasoline tax.
The money is collected in the State Road Fund, which combined with state and federal dollars, takes in about $1.2 billion each year. Gillispie said road projects are funded based on need, and there’s never enough dollars to go around.
“Our needs far outweigh our means,” he explained. “And every year we get further and further behind as a whole. We have a high demand and a limited supply, so therefore, we do have to prioritize.”
Gillispie said on top of funding, there’s a plethora of other challenges. Emergencies like flooding that washout a road can halt regular core maintenance for an extended amount of time, and the DOH only has about 4,600 employees spread out across the state, and they have a high turnover rate.
“We look at the whole state, and we see challenges everywhere,” he said.
Tackling Route 9 West In Berkeley County
In the case of Route 9 West in the Eastern Panhandle, Gillispie said he and his staff have had that road on their radar for some time, but that widening the nearby I-81 Corridor that stretches from Martinsburg to Virginia is the DOH’s main priority in the county.
Gillispie said the DOH is currently studying how to fix Route 9 West in the coming years.
Berkeley County Development Authority’s Sandy Hamilton said she is supportive of studying the road to find the best solution to tackle Route 9 West from a functionality standpoint.
Elaine Mauck, with the Berkeley County Council, said she feels the DOH should address the road as soon as possible and that widening the road to add additional lanes is the way to go.
“The longer it takes for them to come up with an idea about how they're going to do Route 9, the more costly it’s going to be,” Mauck said.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways in 2015 found that West Virginia was short $750 million each year in overall road maintenance and projects.
Gillispie, with the DOH, said that means, to adequately fund the state’s roads, West Virginia would need at least $2.4 billion every year – twice what’s available now.