February 14, 2011

Transportation Panel Gathers Information in Beckley

-Beckley First Stop on Nationwide Transportation Tour-

Beckley, W.Va. – The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee today held a field hearing in Beckley, W.V., to receive testimony from state and local officials as it drafts a long-term surface transportation bill.  The Committee made its first stop in a national series of hearings in Beckley at the request of U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), the top Democrat on the panel, to hear firsthand about the transportation challenges facing the region.

“While West Virginia is blessed with a very fine system of Interstate Highways, and served by several Appalachian Corridor Highways, as a State largely rural in nature, here many people daily drive on roads that were designed in the 1930s,” said Rahall.  “There are ramifications to that, including safety considerations, loss of productivity, and restrictions on economic development.”

Rahall praised the witnesses for their tenacity and diligence in working for better transportation opportunities in southern West Virginia and talked about the direct link between quick, efficient, and safe transportation and a growing economy.

“So many are working so hard in West Virginia to move forward with a number of critical highway corridors such as the I-73/74 King Coal Highway, the Coalfields Expressway, the work being done in Logan County on Route 10, and elsewhere, such as the New River Parkway and the Shawnee Parkway,” said Rahall.  “These endeavors have already attracted job-creating projects, and, while they are essentially highway projects to provide for a more efficient means of travel, they are also engines of economic development.”

While Members and witnesses testified unanimously in support of funding for surface transportation programs, many in attendance discussed the challenges Congress will face in the coming months to fund such investments.

“Small, rural states like West Virginia face special challenges when it comes to funding highway construction.  Many of the options available to more urban, populous areas simply do not work in places like West Virginia,” said Rahall.  “It has been demonstrated that we look for unique ways to leverage scarce highway dollars.  States like West Virginia that work hard to provide matching monies to attract Federal funds ought to be rewarded.”

Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Transportation Paul A. Mattox noted that West Virginia has the 6th largest State-maintained highway system in the country and discussed how critical Federal funds are to highways in the state. State Senator Richard Browning, Executive Director of the Coalfields Expressway Authority, urged the Committee to look for creative ways to fund transportation investments.

“We can’t tax our citizens enough to build the highways we need,” said Browning.  “We are turning over every rock we can find to look for highway dollars.”

Rahall derided a change to the House Rules that was pushed through by Republican Leadership earlier this year that eliminates the direct tie between revenues to the Highway Trust Fund, paid by users through gas taxes at the pump, and the level of investment for these programs.

“I believe people want to see the monies they pay in gas taxes going to highways and not into some black hole named ‘deficit reduction,’” said Rahall.  “But the firewall that preserved the Highway Trust Fund has been taken down.”

Witnesses warned that public-private partnerships that involve private firms building roads and recouping investments through tolls are not always an option in most of West Virginia because of high construction costs and low ridership.  Witnesses pointed to the King Coal Highway as an example of a successful public-private partnership.

Rahall also discussed the importance of rural transit providers for the economy of the region.

“We have several fine rural transit systems in West Virginia, which are often the only means people have to access critical services,” said Rahall.  The rural transit community certainly deserves our continued support.

Rahall pledged to continue to work in a bipartisan fashion with Chairman John Mica and Members of the Committee to ensure that West Virginia’s transportation needs are addressed in the upcoming multi-year surface transportation authorization.

The Committee is holding over ten public hearings and listening sessions across the country to gather information from local communities to draft a new long-term reauthorization of highway, highway safety, transit, and rail programs. The most recent multi-year surface transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU) expired in September 2009, and the program has continued to operate through temporary extensions.

The Committee received testimony from expert witnesses representing a diverse group of transportation stakeholder interests.        Following a welcome message from Beckley Mayor Emmette Pugh, the Committee received oral testimony from the following witnesses:  Paul A. Mattox, Jr., P.E., Secretary, West Virginia Department of Transportation; Mike Clowser, Executive Director, Contractors Association of West Virginia; State Senator Richard Browning, Executive Director, Coalfields Expressway Authority; Mike Mitchem, Executive Director, King Coal Highway I-73/74 Authority, accompanied by Mike Whitt, Executive Director, Mingo County Redevelopment Authority; and Andrew P. Nichols, Ph.D., P.E., Program Director, Intelligent Transportation Systems, Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute.

Aside from West Virginia, the Committee will travel to the following areas to gather information for the surface transportation bill: the Philadelphia Metropolitan area; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Rochester, New York; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; the Chicago Metropolitan area; Vancouver, Washington; Fresno, California; Los Angeles; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and the Memphis Metropolitan area.