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Loss of one-time appropriations to shrink state Highways funding by $145 million

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed 2020-21 state budget reduces state Division of Highways funding by $145 million, to $1.31 billion — primarily because it does not repeat last year’s $100 million one-time transfer of budget surplus for secondary road repairs, members of the House Finance Committee learned Monday.

Deputy Highways Commissioner Jimmy Wriston said Highways used about $34 million of that funding to buy much-needed new equipment, stating, “I can’t even begin to exaggerate the difference that has made.”

Normally, Highways has about a $15 million line-item each year for equipment purchases, he said.

Asked whether the $34 million provided enough equipment to adequately maintain state roads, Wriston said, “I would need another $80 million a year over the next four years.”

He added, “We’ll work with what we have.”

Additionally, another $45 million that had been committed to secondary road work in 2019-20 now has to go to pay debt service on the second round of Roads to Prosperity bonds that went to market in December, raising a total of $747 million for highways construction.

Meanwhile, Adam Holley, outgoing acting commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles, said the state stands to lose $58 million a year in federal highways funding if it keeps a 2019 law barring DUI arrests on private roads on the books.

Passed during the 2019 regular session in response to a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling making it illegal to drive drunk “anywhere in this state,” including private property, lead sponsor Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, described the legislation as the “right to act stupid on your own property.”

Holley said the permissive language could result in the state facing a withholding of a total of 14% of the state’s federal highways funding appropriation.

Also during the Department of Transportation budget presentation:

  • Holley said about 40% of state residents have Real ID compliant driver’s licenses or identification cards, which will be required after Oct. 1 to board commercial aircraft or to enter federal buildings.
  • Individuals without Real ID will need a valid passport or military identification to fly or enter federal facilities, he said.

Holley said DMV plans a final promotional push for Real ID this year, but added, “We anticipate a certain segment of our population just aren’t going to need to get on a plane or enter a federal building.”

  • Justice’s proposed 2020-21 budget includes a $2.8 million funding increase for the State Rail Authority to continue MARC commuter rail service between Washington, D.C. and the Eastern Panhandle for the budget year.
  • Rail Authority executive director Cindy Butler said the state has signed a five-year agreement with the Maryland Transit Authority to continue MARC service into the panhandle.

Maryland officials last year had threatened to cut the service to single eastbound and westbound trains each weekday, over the state’s failure to fully fund its share of the operating costs.

  • Butler said the State Rail Authority has had virtually no involvement with the state Port Authority over operations of the now-defunct Heartland Intermodal Gateway facility in Prichard, Wayne County.

The four-year-old, $32 million road-to-rail cargo transfer facility shut down in September, and is slated to go on the auction block shortly, Transportation Secretary Byrd White said.

Historic private rail car donated to C&O museum by local attorney

HUNTINGTON — Huntington attorney John Hankins, a long-time rail fan, has donated a plush private rail car to the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society (C&OHS).

Describing the rail car as “an important historical and interpretative piece for us,” Thomas W. Dixon Jr., the railroad society’s chairman and president emeritus, said it will go on display at the society’s Heritage Center in Clifton Forge, Virginia. “This donation will help bring our collection to a new level.”

“I’m very happy the car has found an appropriate permanent home,” Hankins said.

The car was built at the Pullman car works south of Chicago in 1924 for use by J.P. Morgan Jr. He was president of the J.P. Morgan banking house, made famous by his father, who died in 1913.

When it was built the car was assigned the name “Erie 400,” the Erie being one of the railroads Morgan had a financial interest in.

In their heyday, private railroad cars were the equivalent of today’s corporate jets.

“The era of the private rail car was in its twilight years when Morgan acquired the Erie 400, but some wealthy people still owned and used rail cars much as they did yachts,” Dixon said.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway acquired the Erie 400 in 1937 and used it as a business car until 1971 when it was sold to Hankins.

“Most of the heavyweight business cars used by the railroads were not built new for the railroad but purchased secondhand, as was the Erie 400, since private owners no longer wanted to use them in the changing transportation environment of the 1920s through the 1940s,” Dixon said.

On acquiring the Erie 400, the C&O designated it as its “Business Car No. 2.”

When the creation of Amtrak brought an end to the C&O’s passenger service, the difficulty and out-of-pocket costs of using business cars increased, prompting the railroads to pare down their fleets of business cars.

Today, CSX Transportation still has a few business cars but they are not used for everyday travel by the railroad’s officials.

On acquiring the Erie 400, the C&O dismantled its plush interior and refitted it with more spartan furnishings and decor.

When Hankins purchased the car from the C&O he entered into a joint venture with entrepreneur Robert Snow, who owned and operated Church Street Station, an elaborate restaurant and retail complex in Orlando, Florida. The car’s interior that had been installed by the C&O was ripped out and replaced with a decor redolent of the early days of luxury train travel.

Snow sold Church Street Station in 1989 and it later closed, Hankins said.

Dixon said the society plans to emphasize the car’s connection to the C&O by returning its interior to the decor it had when it served the railroad, although no timetable for that work has been set.

“An advantage for us,” he said, “is that the car is in very good physical condition and with a little work can be made available not only for display to our Heritage Center visitors, but as a special venue for rental, just as we do with our ‘Gadsby’s Tavern’ dining car.”

The elegant Erie 400 is 85 feet long and boasts an open platform at the rear, an observation lounge, four large bedroom suites, private baths, a large dining room, a full kitchen and crew quarters.

Hankins recalled making many rail trips aboard the Erie 400.

“Over a 15-year period we crisscrossed America and Canada, putting thousands of miles on it,” he said.

In recent years, the car was parked on a siding at the former C&O passenger station on 7th Avenue. It’s since departed for its new home in Clifton Forge.

A week after fiery crash closes pizzeria in Huntington, Husson's looks to re-open

HUNTINGTON — Nick Husson, of Husson’s Pizza, said he is hoping for a late March re-opening of his business’s Huntington location, which was damaged when a car crashed into the building following a police chase last week.

Following the morning crash, the business was closed due to the damage it sustained. Emergency responders said no one was inside at the time. The second floor of the building, which is owned by Marshall University, was also empty.

“I have little details at this time, but I don’t think there was a lot of structural damage to the building itself,” Husson said on Monday.

On the morning of Jan. 6, Tanner Austin Miller, 24, of Huntington, was spotted by Huntington Police driving at about 9 a.m. when officers tried to stop him around 17th Street and 9th Avenue due to active felony warrants.

Miller allegedly fled from the police before crashing into a pickup truck and driving through a large window on the 4th Avenue side of Husson’s, coming to a stop in the kitchen area, where the front end of his crossover SUV burst into flames.

After crashing into the building, Miller fled on foot before being caught by police, who said he had two active felony and misdemeanor warrants and will face additional charges related to the crash.

In addition to the damage to the building, Husson says there was lots of damage to windows, the drop ceiling, electric lines, plumbing and equipment inside the establishment. The restaurant also received extensive fire and smoke damage.

“Our ovens are gas ovens, but have electronic circuitry and I think it was all fried, but we will not know until we have power to turn them on and find out for sure,” he said.

Husson said the store has insurance, but he was not sure about the insurance status of the building owned by Marshall.

“Right now we are very early in the process,” he said. “The Health Department pulled our permits because everything will have to be re-evaluated before we are allowed to sell food again.”

Husson said the Huntington location is one of the company’s best performers.

“With its location by the Marshall University campus, it has always been a strong performer,” he said. “We will miss the sales on Valentine’s Day, which can be as (much) as an entire week. We are hoping for a late March, or early April at the latest, opening and I don’t think there is any chance that it would be earlier than that.”

Husson said the Huntington Husson’s Pizza is a franchisee location, owned and operated by a mother-and-son team.

“It’s my sister Christine Bsharah and her son George,” he said.

Husson said the company is very committed to the Huntington area.

“Huntington is a place we need to be and if not in that building then it will be somewhere else in Huntington,” he said. “We are very committed to having a presence in Huntington.”

Husson’s Pizza has 10 locations, including Huntington, with the next closest being in Scott Depot in the Teays Valley area of Putnam County.

For more information about Husson’s Pizza, visit www.hussonspizza.com.

Council approves $1.8M loan for repairs of Kinetic Park slip

HUNTINGTON — Members of Huntington City Council unanimously approved an intergovernmental agreement Monday night that will see the city of Huntington loan about $1.8 million to the Huntington Municipal Development Authority for a hillside slip repair at Kinetic Park, which is already under construction.

Meanwhile, council members approved a separate ordinance removing a residency requirement for HMDA’s 15-member board, citing difficulty finding qualified candidates to serve on it.

All revenue generated from the tax increment financing (TIF) district surrounding Kinetic Park will go toward repaying the city within four years, said Cathy Burns, HMDA executive director. Slippage to the west slope of Kinetic Park has been a problem for many years, stemming from insufficient natural spring drainage as Kinetic Park was developed in the early 2000s, Burns said.

To tackle the problem, HMDA hired an engineering firm to plan erosion and sediment control and the installation of stormwater lines and drains. HMDA then hired K&N Contracting, of Elkview, West Virginia, to complete the work for $2.5 million. HMDA agreed to pay for the project from revenue generated as incremental increases in personal and real property taxes within the district, known as TIF No. 2.

Burns said during an HMDA meeting in November that she originally intended to get a bank loan to finance the project and repay it with the TIF No. 2 account. However, after researching the district’s founding language, she discovered it was established as a pay-as-needed account with no financing obligations permitted.

About $617,000 was paid from the account to begin the project, meaning about $1.8 million is needed to finish it. The proposed intergovernmental agreement will allow the city to advance $1.8 million to HMDA, which will repay the city as TIF revenue comes in monthly. The account generates about $500,000 a year, so Burns expects it to be repaid within four years.

Council members also unanimously approved a separate ordinance striking residency rules for members of the HMDA Board. According to the city’s charter, HMDA’s board shall consist of the mayor, one City Council representative, three business representatives, three industry representatives, three labor representatives and four economic development representatives. All members “shall be citizens and bona fide residents of the city.”

Burns said striking the residency line from the code is in line with a 2012 voter referendum that ended residency requirements for city employees.

One member recommended for HMDA’s labor representation has a Huntington address, but lives outside city limits, she said.

Also during Monday night’s meeting, council members approved a $138,870 contract with F&L Electronics, of Huntington, to furnish portable radios for each member of the Huntington Fire Department.

Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader said the department’s current radios are about 15 years old and cannot be repaired or replaced once they break down.

“This will actually be the first time in history that we will be issuing a radio to each person on the Huntington Fire Department, that will not only increase the safety on large-scale events, but it will also increase the accountability for each firefighter,” she said.

The equipment will be paid from the fire department’s capitol outlay account.