/Roads, bridges remain a priority

Roads, bridges remain a priority

The Mississippi Economic Council lobbied for $375 million more revenue to meet the state’s immediate transportation requirements during this year’s legislative session. A number of lobbyist groups supported the MEC’s priority to expand and maintain Mississippi’s infrastructure. Scott Waller, executive vice-president of the Mississippi Economic Council led the push. The research was based upon research from the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University. Based on the amount that the Transportation Department would require in additional funds to maintain roads in good condition, the $375 million figure was calculated. There were many options for infrastructure investment that the Mississippi Economic Council suggested. Waller pointed out that the Legislature will have to choose a method sooner than the Legislature. This means that each dollar will not be as effective. Waller stated that there were many options. Waller stated that waiting was not an option. The taxpayer will pay more the longer we wait, if we have to wait. It seems like the prudent thing to do is to invest in our infrastructure.” Rep. Robert Foster (R-Hernando) asked Melinda McGrath, Transportation Department Executive Director, for an assessment of Mississippi’s roads, and a figure for how much funding would be needed to make them safe. McGrath replied that it would cost approximately $400 million. McGrath replied that $400 million would be about what it would take. However, nobody on the panel inquired about the funding method — such as bonding, gas tax increases, or additional sales tax diversion. Mississippi Today reached out and spoke to several of the groups that supported the MEC’s spring push to find out their plans for moving forward. The Mississippi Association of Supervisors has had Derrick Surrette as its executive director for eight years. The association supports county governments. Since he was there, road and bridge maintenance and repair have been at the forefront of the group’s agenda. The Mississippi Department of Transportation maintains many of the state-aid roads through Mississippi’s counties. Surrette stated that funding these roads is a significant cost to county governments. “We receive a very low portion of the petroleum tax.” It goes to state aid roads and not locally maintained roads. Only property taxes are allowed. Not sales taxes. Petroleum taxes. Generally, property taxes do not rise because the assessed values are not increasing. Supervisors do their best to keep taxes from rising.” County funding for large and expensive projects is provided by the Local System Bridge Replacement Program or the Local System Road Program. The Office of State Aid Road Construction grants counties the right to use the designated funds and general state aid funds to build and maintain local roads and bridges. Mississippi Association of Supervisors supported the MEC’s efforts to increase funding for transportation. Surrette stated, “We walked through the halls trying for road and bridge financing.” I heard a lot about tax increases. It’s just not enough money. This is very basic talk in the realm of policy and politics. Let’s move on to the third or fourth grade and start to think about why and how we will do it. What are the benefits? What are the downsides? Farm Bureau is home to 192,000 members in 82 county offices. The bureau establishes legislative goals each year. Mississippi Today reached Mike McCormick to learn that Farm Bureau had not yet established its policy resolutions for 2017. McCormick stated that “we usually set three priorities each session.” Last year, road and bridge repairs was one of our priorities. They are vital to farmers. Farmers depend on state and local roads to transport their livestock and crops for processing and sale. McCormick stated that it was in 2014 that it became a problem for farmers crossing Highway 6. “They closed all the bridges and the east Mississippi men couldn’t cross the river to the ports to get their grain. They had to travel about 100 miles further. It was a major issue for our guys across the state.” Engineers from the Department of Transportation “post” bridges that are structurally impaired. The sign will indicate the maximum weight the bridge can support. The department will close bridges that are unsafe to traverse until they can be repaired if they reach a point of decay. McGrath at Transportation stated that the agency does not use scare tactics to try to get the Legislature funding increases. “If a bridge becomes unsafe, we will close it down to protect people.” More than 350 of the agency’s Five Year Plan projects are related to maintenance, construction, or expansion of bridges. McCormick stated that “Because these posted bridges are they having to travel miles and miles to be able deliver their goods.” It’s an inconvenience but could be a liability to have trucks on the roads for longer than they need. Accidents do happen. The cities of Mississippi are another piece of the infrastructure puzzle. Shari Veazey is the executive director of Mississippi Municipal League. She said that even though the league hadn’t approved its legislative agenda for 2017, the league was working to assist cities with street, water, and sewerage infrastructure. Veazey stated that this is a crucial issue for most of our cities. But a lot of it depends on state revenues, and we have to prove our point. That was what we tried last year. We will do it again next year. Veazey stated that additional municipal sales tax divertions were a method of funding infrastructure improvements. Cities currently receive 18.5 percent of the sales tax collected within their municipal boundaries. Veazey stated that the bill was aimed at increasing the municipal sales tax diversion from 18.5 percent to 20 percent over a period of two years. Veazey stated that the bill died in conference. It would have cost the general fund 40 million dollars to fully phase it in. We were told that projections for state revenue were falling. In reality, this is just giving the money back to cities.” Although the proposal failed in its last session, Veazey stated that the Municipal League hopes to find a way for the diversion increase to be passed in 2017’s legislative session. Rep. Charles Busby (R-Jackson County), is the chairman of the state’s House transportation committee. He wants the lobbying efforts taken by these groups to be only the beginning. Busby stated, “We must do what’s fiscally responsible.” “How can we leave here without having funded something we all agree is a core obligation of government. Our government has a fundamental responsibility for our infrastructure. Part 2: Commissioners call for more highway revenue. Part 3: Legislators examine highway spending waste. Support this work by making a regular donation to our Spring Member Drive. This will allow us to continue important work such as this one. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. Republish this Story You can freely republish our articles online or in print under a Creative Commons licence. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.