Secondary road upkeep likely behind Smith’s firing

March 12, 2019 GMT

HD Media

CHARLESTON - A difference of opinion with Gov. Jim Justice over how to fix crumbling secondary roads in West Virginia apparently led the governor to fire veteran highways engineer Tom Smith as state transportation secretary on Sunday night.

One day after the regular legislative session concluded without resolving concerns over secondary roads, Justice issued a two-sentence statement announcing Smith’s firing:

“I want a new direction to be taken with our Department of Transportation, a return to the core mission of maintaining the quality of our secondary roads and bridges,” the governor said. “I sincerely appreciate the service Tom has given to the State of West Virginia.”

When Smith was campaigning with Justice to support the Roads to Prosperity road bond amendment in 2017, the governor frequently called Smith a “superstar.”

But in this year’s legislative session, Smith did not embrace Justice’s State of the State call to use a portion of state road bond funds to repair secondary roads.

Smith instead acknowledged to legislators that state funding for secondary roads had increased from $60 million to more than $200 million annually, but conceded that amount was barely scratching the surface.

“Even in tripling it, there’s so much more to do, and we know that,” Smith told the House Finance Committee.

The governor’s office did not have additional comment Monday, and the Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, said Monday he had a good working relationship with Smith, and found him to be highly knowledgeable about building roads.

Clements said he believes that while Justice fired Smith over secondary road conditions, the fault lies with local Division of Highways offices that have been underproductive, frequently because they are understaffed.

“The local level, to me, is where the problem lies, not in Charleston,” Clements said.

Clements said he supports “100 percent” Smith’s reluctance to commit bond funds, to be repaid over 30 years, to secondary road repairs.

“Spending bond money to fix potholes is not what we said we were going to do,” Clements said, referring to the list of highways construction projects that Justice and Smith touted while campaigning around the state in 2017 promoting the Roads to Prosperity bond referendum.

He also said Smith was being blamed for a fundamental problem with state roads that even with the bond issues, the level of need for state road construction and maintenance far exceeds available funding.

“Unfortunately, the only true answer I see is that we’re going to have to increase the motor fuel tax, and nobody wants to do that,” he said.

Prior to joining the Justice administration in February 2017, Smith had been a senior transportation adviser for the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington, D.C., for about a year.

That followed a 37-year career at the Federal Highways Administration, where he was division administrator for West Virginia at the time of his retirement.

In announcing his appointment of Smith, Justice at the time said, “Our roads and bridges are crumbling and Tom Smith is the right choice to spearhead the effort to upgrade our transportation infrastructure. He has the hands-on experience building roads I want in this position, and Tom understands how get the most out of every transportation dollar.”

Justice in his statement Sunday did not provide any indication about a replacement for Smith.

The governor had previously scheduled a press conference on Wednesday to announce a plan to “significantly accelerate repairs and maintenance to West Virginia’s secondary roads.”

“There is no doubt the Department of Transportation is doing great work on our Roads to Prosperity projects, but our secondary roads aren’t being addressed with the urgency needed,” Justice said in that announcement. “This is the issue that we will address with this plan, and secondary roads will be the number one priority of the department.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.