W.Va. governor criticized for using CARES Act funds for 'medical access road' maintenance

Gov. Jim Justice initially allocated $100 million to maintenance of 95 roadways he calls "COVID-19 highways"


Phil Kabler
The Charleston Gazette, W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A review of the 95 Medical Access Roads projects unveiled Monday by the Division of Highways shows that a majority of the projects have one thing in common: They’re miles away from the nearest hospitals.

Apparently, only two of the 95 projects that include repaving, slip repairs, and/or drainage improvements to state roads are actually adjacent to hospitals, based on a review of the division’s website and Google Maps.

Both are in Fayette County. One is a $390,000 project involving drainage improvements and repaving of 0.64 miles of Main Street East in Oak Hill, adjacent to Plateau Medical Center.

The other is a $350,000 project to replace drainage structures and repave 0.61 miles of 6th Avenue in Montgomery, adjacent to Montgomery General Hospital.

Gov. Jim Justice announced on June 26 that he was going to use $100 million of the state’s allotment of $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act pandemic relief funds for construction or repairs to what he called COVID-19 Highways.

In the face of criticism from U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, among others, over the propriety of using COVID-19 relief funds for road building and maintenance, Justice announced on July 10 that he was pivoting on the issue, and would move $50 million of the $100 million to broadband expansion.

Earlier in July, the governor’s office released a legal memorandum from Charleston attorneys Ben Bailey, Brian Glasser and Jonathan Deem dated July 9 calling for the state take a “cautious” and “prudent” approach to using federal CARES Act funds for road construction and repairs.

The governor’s office did not ask Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for a legal opinion on the matter, as governors normally do when facing legal questions.

U.S. Treasury guidance for CARES Act expenditures restricts the use of the funds for capital improvements to those “necessary expenditures” directly incurred during the COVID-19 public health emergency, such as constructing temporary health care facilities.

Justice has repeatedly asserted his confidence that the federal restrictions on CARES Act expenditures will be relaxed as the pandemic goes on, stating during his Monday COVID-19 briefing, “We have checked this, and checked this, and checked this as to how we can use these funds with regard to this from the standpoint of medical emergency routes.”

In the memo to Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy, the Charleston lawyers had this recommendation regarding use of the funds for road projects: “[T]he risk that any certain project would be deemed a non-permissible use of CRF [Coronavirus Relief Fund] dollars should be proportionate to the degree to which the existing conditions are impeding access to care.”

In the memorandum, the lawyers advised that use of funds for road maintenance are more likely to be deemed permissible if road conditions are impeding access to health care:

“For example, disbursing CRF funds to fix a road that has been identified by local authorities as being impassable to ambulances is more likely to be considered a permissible use of funds than securing an embankment that may slide and cause hazardous road conditions, but that is not currently impeding emergency vehicle access.”

Of the 95 projects, only Crestwood Road in Kanawha County is cited as being closed to through traffic because of a slip.

Many of the descriptions of the 95 road projects contend the work is necessary to improve response times for ambulances and other emergency vehicles.

A $325,000 project to repave one mile of W.Va. 9 in rural southwestern Marion County offers a typical description: “The heavy truck traffic serving the local coal mine has deteriorated the existing surface to the point it is no longer viable to patch, making it difficult to travel for the local EMS, First Responders, school buses, and the traveling public.”

While designated a Medical Access Road, the project is 17.7 miles away from Fairmont Regional Medical Center, and 19.8 miles away from United Hospital Center in Bridgeport, the closest hospitals, according to Google Maps.

Similarly, among projects in Kanawha County, the Medical Access Road closest to a hospital is Crestwood Road, located 7.1 miles from Charleston Area Medical Center General Division.

The most distant Medical Access Road in the county is Belle Creek Road, which is 27.9 miles away from CAMC Memorial Division, although closer to Valley Health and Pioneer Health centers.

In Putnam County, the shortest distance between a Medical Access Road and a hospital is 10.9 miles, from the W.Va. 62 project in Hometown to CAMC Teays Valley.

The County Route 26 project in Lime Kiln is the furthest from a hospital, located 19 miles from CAMC Teays Valley.

While most of the projects involved repaving, slip repairs, or drainage improvements, a $1 million project on W.Va. 49 from Delorme to Williamson in Mingo County is somewhat unusual.

The project calls for hot mix asphalt skip paving on parts of the 18.8-mile route, along with canopy cutting and hazardous tree removal along the route.

Similarly, a $1.3 million project in Wayne County, covering 9.1 miles from Big Creek to the Cabell County line, entails guardrail installation, canopy cutting, and hazardous tree removal.

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©2020 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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