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Before my feet hit the floor each morning, I know what will be waiting when I check my phone: messages from constituents regarding roads or water. Infrastructure is — by far — the issue I hear most about from the citizens in the 8th Senatorial District. It is likely the most pressing problem facing West Virginia and is holding back our growth. The good news is we have exciting opportunities coming up.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) releases a report on the condition of infrastructure in the United States. In the report just released, the ASCE estimated that poor roads cost West Virginia drivers an extra $723 per year in repair and fuel costs. They found that 19% of our bridges are structurally deficient. Drinking water needs are estimated to be $1.39 billion, and wastewater needs $3.26 billion. Infrastructure is a staggering problem.

It has been more than nine axle-rattling years since Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin formed the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways. In 2015, the commission reported that more than a third of roads were in extremely poor condition. They found that an annual $500 million increase in highway construction would generate $994 million in economic output, plus nearly 10,000 new jobs across our economy, creating more than $296 million in wages. Infrastructure should be a huge driver of our economy.

In 2017, voters approved Gov. Jim Justice’s Roads to Prosperity amendment that allowed our state to purchase a series of bonds. Now known as Drive Forward WV, these bond funds are being used for major road construction projects that have a long life. There are more than 700 projects spread throughout each county, representing $2.9 billion in investment. West Virginians can follow progress at www.transportation.wv.gov/driveforwardwv.

The Drive Forward WV program has freed up funds for road maintenance, but not nearly enough. The Department of Transportation (WVDOT) believes it would take $750 million more each year to conduct all needed maintenance. West Virginia winters rotate between freeze-and-thaw cycles that lead to a breakdown of roads. Plus, our mountains, valleys and waterways create a much greater need for basic maintenance.

Many thousands of West Virginians lack access to clean water. They have water delivered or fill tanks for their homes or businesses. Many communities rely on systems built decades ago that are in chronic disrepair. It is likely that more than 900,000 West Virginians use water from systems that are out of compliance with the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act.

In 2020, we passed two pieces of legislation to help. Senate Bill 551, the Water and Wastewater Investment Facilitation Act, gave flexibility to municipalities to sell systems to utilities that can better manage the infrastructure. It allows local governments to combine rates to keep them reasonable for citizens.

Senate Bill 589 authorizes the Water Development Authority to make loans or grants to address critical needs in water and sewer systems from moneys allocated from excess lottery funds. This has given municipalities flexibility to make repairs.

In 2019, we passed Senate Bill 153, which allows the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council greater flexibility to provide grants to struggling communities to fund infrastructure improvements.

I thank the dedicated state and local employees who help us manage critical infrastructure. As lawmakers, we need to listen and heed their advice.

The American Rescue Plan, the new COVID relief bill signed into law by President Joe Biden, has $677 million in direct funding for West Virginia’s counties, cities and towns. As U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin explained to local leaders, after they meet their COVID responsibilities, local governments have an unprecedented opportunity to decide how to spend those funds to do the most good, specifically for water, sewer and broadband. State Auditor J.B. McCuskey has pledged to help local governments track, spend and make transparent to all West Virginians how funds will be spent.

The state also will receive funding of $1.25 billion to cover expenses and lost revenue related to the COVID-19 pandemic and to make necessary investments in water, sewer and broadband. The bill includes guardrails to ensure funding is not used to fill budget holes unrelated to the pandemic.

We also are expecting a significant piece of legislation from the Biden administration to rebuild infrastructure across our land to create American jobs. It should bring good-paying jobs for West Virginians, the kind of jobs that stabilize families and communities. The West Virginia Jobs Act will ensure that these jobs are available first for our citizens.

Used wisely, these programs will be transformative for our state. Growing a 21st-century economy requires planning and cooperation. If we are not clear-eyed, honest and face our problems head on and together, West Virginia and our country will continue to struggle. We must rebuild so West Virginians will be able to stay and succeed.

West Virginia state Sen. Glenn Jeffries represents the 8th Senatorial District. He is the president and owner of Cornerstone Interiors. He lives in Red House.

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