MPO should say no to WVDOT refund request

The West Virginia Department of Transportation wants to take back money that it promised for the Exit 155 reconstruction. The Morgantown Monongalia Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board should tell it no.

For years, Exit 155 on Interstate 79 was the main — if not the sole — access point into northern Morgantown through Star City, and it has always been crowded. Then the University Town Centre started expanding. Then the Gateway, with all its businesses, was built up. Then Mylan Park out on Chaplin Hill Road became a hub for recreation, sports, events and even more businesses. And now Exit 155 can be so congested during rush hour that traffic backs up onto the interstate itself.

The reconstruction of Exit 155 to relieve that congestion and improve connectivity to the various hubs has been in the works for roughly seven years but with no tangible progress. In 2019, the new design was announced: a divergent diamond configuration with a westbound flyover and new bridges over Chaplin Hill Road estimated to cost $66 million, which the state promised to fund. Then nothing more happened.

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation granted $54.3 million for the project. And now the West Virginia DOT is asking for most of its promised contribution back so those funds can be released to other federal-match projects across the state. The MPO has appointed five of its members to a committee to get more information from the state regarding this request. Instead of wasting time with a committee, the MPO should just tell the WVDOT no.

At this point, the $66 million price tag is probably a lowball estimate. Prices on virtually everything have increased and there are always costly delays on any big project. It doesn’t make sense to let the state take back $59 million of the funding it promised before ground has even been broken. If people are going to insist on having this fight, then they should have it after the project is complete and they can squabble over whatever amount remains.

Of course, the WVDOT could leave the remaining balance (assuming there is any after Exit 155 is complete) to the MPO for future projects. In that case, the state has already accounted for that money being spent plus the MPO wouldn’t need to request as much funding later because it will have any savings from this project to draw on first.

Despite our pondering above, it’s too soon to speculate on how any excess state dollars could or should be handled when the Exit 155 reconstruction doesn’t even have a start date, let alone an end date and total for expenses. That’s why it’s extremely premature — bordering on rude — for the WVDOT to start asking for a refund.MPO should say no to WVDOT refund request