Courtesy of the Governor's Office

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, speaking last year in Buckhannon, said new equipment, including hydraulic excavators, tandem- and single-axle dump trucks, pickup trucks, pavers, cranes and mowers, had become available for DOH employees to use as part of the Secondary Road Initiative projects throughout the state.

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Things that can’t go on, won’t.

Those aphorisms and similar ones should have been in the minds of the tens of thousands of West Virginians who rely on the state’s secondary road system.

Last year, Gov. Jim Justice began a program to overcome years of neglect of the secondary road system when he transferred $100 million of a state budget surplus to the Division of Highways to repair secondary roads.

These are the back roads off the main highways, the ones known by names instead of numbers, usually two lanes but many times barely one, the shortcut from here to there, the roads that are a day or two or three down on the list of priorities for seeing a snowplow.

If someone asks why West Virginians must maintain a car in perfect condition so it can be beaten to oblivion on a road filled with potholes, bumps or slips, that person probably lives on a secondary road.

Last year Justice delivered on his promise to make up for years of neglect. For a year, he fulfilled that promise. People saw road crews repairing their roads, and things were looking better. It was a good start.

The state’s 2020-21 fiscal year budget submitted by the governor for the Legislature’s approval reduces the Division of Highways funding by $145 million. In part that’s because Justice does not have $100 million in a surplus lying around. Also, $45 million that had been available from the bond issue for construction projects on interstate highways and primary roads isn’t available this coming year.

Justice’s proposed budget does not offer any possible sources to replace that $145 million, so people who rely on secondary roads are out of luck, as usual.

About $34 million of that $145 million was used to buy equipment to maintain secondary roads. What becomes of that equipment now that repair activity will diminish back to its normal level of inadequacy remains to be seen.

Maintaining secondary roads has never been a priority for the Division of Highways, at least during the lifetime of the average West Virginian. Primary roads and interstates get most of the attention. That’s understandable given the traffic volume on those roads. But decades of neglect to the secondary road system means potholes go unpatched, ditches go uncleaned, guardrails are not replaced and slips go unrepaired.

Division of Highways officials acknowledge that funding levels are nowhere near what’s needed to bring the secondary road system back up to good condition. Yet there’s no real sustained effort to find that funding.

So, unless another pot of gold (or asphalt) is found, 2019 will have been a one-year reprieve from the practice of ignoring secondary roads until problems arise that must be dealt with immediately, if at all.

That’s not a way to maintain a road system, but until something changes in the Legislature or in the Division of Highways, that’s the reality of driving on West Virginia’s back roads.

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