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Improved economy will bring better roads

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Steve Roberts Steve Roberts
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Steve Roberts is president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce strongly believes West Virginia's future is tied closely to education enhancement, improving our jobs climate and the continued improvement of our infrastructure, primarily the maintenance and construction of our vitally important highway system. Without a quality transportation system, our quality of life is severely limited.

During the past year, the Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways has sought out alternatives to the escalating cost of maintaining and further developing the state's 36,000 miles of state highways, which is the sixth largest state highway system in the nation.

Despite the very apparent need for significant improvements to our transportation system, the Chamber is understandably reluctant to support multiple new fees and taxes on the working men and women of the Mountain State. Frankly, we view permanent new fees and taxes as only a last resort to be considered, and then, only if broad public support exists for increasing fees and taxes.  In the near term, the Chamber sees serious and immediate concerns. Just as every family must prioritize its spending needs, West Virginia must prioritize and address its most urgent needs with an eye toward creativity, innovation, and in relation to the means employed by neighboring states.

The West Virginia Chamber's long-term solution to this critical issue is, simple as it sounds, to grow the economy, which will create more revenue for all West Virginians. State businesses are the engines of job creation, but sadly, West Virginia ranks last in the nation in the percentage of our population that currently works at a job.  The revenue needed to improve our highway system will come as the economy grows and new jobs are created.

What will it take for our state's economy to grow? The list of solutions is not long, but the status quo cannot be maintained. We need to be bold in developing an improved education and worker preparedness system, ensure everyone a fair legal system and develop a competitive tax structure. Also, we must confront the issue of paying realistic wages for government-funded projects like highways.  According to a former chief economist with the U.S. Department of Labor, a "flag man" on a public project in rural West Virginia is paid $37 per hour plus fringe benefits. This unreasonable wage rate is not only shocking but certainly has an impact on the number of schools that can be built and the miles of highways that can be maintained and constructed in the state. A West Virginia University study suggests West Virginia's wage rates cost state taxpayers 30 percent more in road building expenditures.

Lastly, West Virginia must have a reasonable regulatory climate for businesses to operate and create more jobs. Our two Democratic U.S. senators must undertake the task of finding a way to assist President Obama's EPA to promulgate regulations that assist people who need lower utility bills and jobs, instead of higher costs and fewer jobs.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is on record saying he'll reserve judgment on the recommendations of his Blue Ribbon Commission until he receives its final report. The governor has done an excellent job of confronting the state's indebtedness and should continue to search for additional ways to address the critical highway funding issue without numerous new fees and taxes.

Growing the economy by discarding the status quo and taking bold steps to make West Virginia more competitive will create new revenue and new jobs. What will follow is a competitive business climate that will provide what is needed to develop a new education system, improved highway system, and a better quality of life for all West Virginians.