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With roads so bad even the ambulance can't pass, this county hopes for infrastructure dollars

“They forget about the people out here like us that need help, so that we can get our children educated, people can go to work.”
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Roads are so bad in Clay County, West Virginia, that Stephanie Taylor has to take the two vehicles she used to make her mail deliveries to the repair shop every two to three months to have tires patched or realigned, brakes maintained and struts replaced.

The mail carrier contractor compared the roads she drives through the communities of Wallback, Maysel and Procious during her daily route to a coffee table with 15 coffee cups and four cereal bowls scattered on top of it.

“You have to dodge potholes to be hittin’ bigger potholes. They’re rough,” Taylor, a lifelong Clay County resident, said.

But it’s not just potholes. Last year, she had to alter her route for six months in order to dodge an area of Hansford Fork Road that eroded down the side of a hill “like a mudslide.”

“It's just something that you have learned to live with all your life and you just do it,” Taylor said. “If you can't get through one way, you know three other ways to get around it.”

It’s a common way of thinking for drivers in the area.

Beverly King, the county’s recently retired ambulance service director, who served in the role for 17 years, said some roads that would otherwise serve as shortcuts during dispatches are not accessible.

“There's roads that you can go through to make a run shorter, but these roads are in such bad shape that you can’t. So, that means we have to go around, the long way,” she said.

Reducing ambulance speed to avoid potholes and bumps is an “everyday thing" — and lengthens response time.

Reducing ambulance speed to avoid potholes and bumps is an “everyday thing,” King said. On some roads, the ambulance cannot drive faster than 20 miles per hour. Depending on the condition and the area of the county they’re in, these factors can also lengthen patient response time by five to 10 minutes.

“When the roads are so bad that we can't get to [the patients] or if we have to take detours to get to them, that delays our care and that delays what we can do for them,” she said.

In addition, the county's ambulance service has to pay an extra $10,000-15,000 a year in repair and maintenance costs for its four trucks, King said.

David W. Pierson Jr., co-owner of Pierson Lumber Company in Clay, said his business has to pay around $10,000 a year just to maintain its trucks. His own 20-mile back road ride to get to Interstate 79 for a grocery trip is half on rough roads.

“It's just aggravating. I reckon I’ve kind of got used to it, but I don't like it,” he said.

Catering to complaints like these and working to get roads fixed has not been easy for Clay County.

When Clay County Commissioner Fran King relays the issues to the West Virginia Department of Transportation’s Division of Highways, the agency frequently cites a lack of funding for road repairs.

“But then when funds come into the state, they’re allocated for the bigger counties to put in byways and roundabouts,” she said. “They forget about the people out here like us that need help, so that we can get our children educated, people can go to work.”

"Our topography makes highway construction in West Virginia significantly more expensive. And that's true for a lot of rural states or rural areas."

The West Virginia Department of Transportation and the Office of Gov. Jim Justice did not respond to an NBC News request for comment on this issue.

King also said the state’s control over county roads serves as a barrier to getting local complaints resolved. In West Virginia, the Division of Highways controls 89 percent of miles, leading every other U.S. state, according to a recent report from TRIP, a transportation research nonprofit organization.

“We have no power,” King said. “Those complaints come to us, then we report them, but nothing becomes of them and then the citizens think that we could do something about it but we cannot.”

In June 2016, the county was also hit by a major flood that caused an estimated $10.3 million in road damages, according to Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security.

Poor road conditions and a lack of funding are widespread across the Mountain State, with the American Society of Civil Engineers rating its roads a “D+,” or “poor” last year, trailing behind states like Colorado, Utah and Maine for the same year. According to TRIP, 55 percent of West Virginia’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, costing each driver $726 per year.

West Virginia University civil engineering professor David Martinelli said that in addition to clay-filled soil, which holds water, and repetitive soil freeze-soft cycles, the state’s mountainous terrain makes it more prone to road damage and difficult to carry out road installation and repair projects, especially due to the price tag.

Ivydale Ridge Road in Clay County, W.Va.
Ivydale Ridge Road in Clay County, W.Va.Fran King / Clay County Commissioner

“The most expensive element of highway construction is earthmoving operations,” he said. “We've done a lot of it because of our topography — so that makes highway construction in West Virginia, right out of the gate, significantly more expensive. And that's true for a lot of rural states or rural areas.”

A recent West Virginia Department of Transportation highway funding and finance fact sheet said that across the state, “allocations continue to fall short of maintenance expenses and certain revenues can only be spent on certain expenses.”

“Total revenues remain flat because of limited increases in existing main sources (motor fuel taxes, registration and license fees, privilege taxes) generally due to slow population growth, limited economic development with declines in some sectors, and relatively somewhat low income in comparison to peer states,” the fact sheet reads. “At the same time, material and labor costs all are increasing faster than inflation, requiring more money to deliver the same projects over time.”

A potential solution to closing this gap and helping places that need it has been Justice’s Roads to Prosperity program, which allocates $1.6 billion in state bonds to improving roads and bridges across the state, approved by West Virginia voters in 2017. Another push has come from the governor’s Secondary Roads Initiative, announced in 2019, which, as of February, has helped the state Division of Highway workers complete 27,967 miles worth of road work, the Department of Transportation said.

More recently, West Virginia lawmakers approved the governor’s request to transfer $150 million from General Revenue to the State Road Fund earlier this month. Clay County is set to receive around $2.4 million of it — or less than 29 of the 54 other counties, according to a Department of Transportation data sheet reported by WVDM.

Another potential solution could be more federal funding, specifically from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which looks to use $115 billion to fix 20,000 miles of rough roads and bridges across the U.S.

Right now, only about one-third of the West Virginia Division of Highway’s revenue comes from the federal government, according to the WVDOT, and more dollars could be crucial.

The state's particular environmental characteristics mean funding should be allocated according to the same parameters as states that receive wildfire or hurricane relief, Martinelli said.

“We do, in West Virginia, rely on federal funds so that we can address the more unique challenges that we have. Trying to do that just from our own operations would not be sufficient for sure,” he said.

Ram Pendyala, professor at the Arizona State University School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, said how states allocate transportation funding depends on “project prioritization and programming methodology.” Some of the factors taken into consideration include roadway conditions, performance measures related to traffic volume, and time and future traffic forecasts.

“You come up with some sort of a score or a prioritization metric that allows you to rank projects based on the need,” he said. “There's just not enough dollars to take care of all of the needs. You just take care of what's needed most and the others have to just wait their turn.”

Pendyala said that new federal funding could be crucial for places that need it to make up for maintenance backlog, and to make transportation infrastructure smarter and more sustainable.

“It could be huge, it could be transformational,” he said, adding that the federal gas tax has lost its purchasing power with no boost in almost 30 years, and that labor and material costs have increased.

“This infusion of resources really gives us that opportunity and the resources to significantly elevate and bring about our quantum leap in the state of our transportation systems,” he said of Biden's infrastructure plan.

If the bill is passed and money makes its way to King's neck of the woods, “It could mean the success or the failure of our county. It’s to that point,” she said.