FEDERAL HIGHWAY FUNDS AT RISK FOR WV HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT - "Privatization By Stealth"

(02/26/2008)

Federal highway funds could be in jeopardy in West Virginia.

Thomas J. Smith, a federal highway administrator, sent a Jan. 2 letter to Transportation Secretary Paul A. Mattox Jr., writing "For many years, the West Virginia Department of Transportation and FHWA have worked together in partnership to ensure that highway projects are planned, designed, constructed and maintained in a fully satisfactory manner."

"However, we believe that a recent trend within the WVDOT potentially jeopardizes this ability to continue to satisfactorily deliver the program," Smith continued.

Gordon Simmons, chief steward for the West Virginia Public Workers Union/UE Local said "I handle a lot of grievance cases in the Division of Highways ... One of the common complaints I hear from our members is that positions are intentionally left unfilled. When you compound that with low pay, you won't attract people."

Simmons told the Charleston Gazette the state is "trying to privatize state highway operations by strangling the work force, by not filling vacant positions."

"Then they have to turn to private contractors, who cost a lot more than competent people on the state payroll doing the same work."

Simmons said he believes current state policy is "privatization by stealth."

Simmons said DOT's workforce is being made smaller intentionally.

"The rumors I hear from various highway garages around the state are: 'If you have three positions open, do not expect ever getting more than two of them filled.'"

Highway officials have denied moving toward more privatization, when confronted about the issue, but then later admit they are turning more to private contractors, work once done by state employees.

Federal reviews of the WV highway department, in recent years, "have noted a significant and substantial loss of knowledge and experience within WVDOT due to retirements and/or resignations. This problem is compounded by the Dot's inability to attract, replace or retain staff with similar experience in a timely manner."

Marvin Murphy, a state highway engineer, said "This has been a growing problem over a number of years ... With Baby Boomers retiring, it has become more critical. We are making quite a number of efforts to increase pay and to attract people to work for us."

Mattox has said 70 percent of DOT's engineers would become eligible for retirement over the next five years.

Harold Michael, D-Hardy County said he hasn't gotten an explanation from DOT.

"It is a major story, a major development, if we have that concern from federal highways officials that the department [West Virginia Department of Transportation], for whatever reasons, is not prepared or competent to do the job the state needs to do," he said. "I am trying to get some answers out of Highways, but so far it has been very limited." Michael said.

Federal grants provide 80 percent of all money used to build roads in the Appalachian Highways program and 90 percent of the money used to construct Interstate highways.


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