Analysis: Counties promote rural bridge program

By Jack Elliott Jr./The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi counties are lobbying to revive funding for the Local System Bridge Program.

Funding proposals failed during the 2012 legislative session in the dust-up over a bond bill.

Since 1994, the bridge program has made money available to counties for work on bridges where no sources of funding are available other than county funds. There are thousands of substandard local bridges across the state — those not part of the interstate or state highway systems.

It has been — along with money for rural fire trucks — one of the most politically popular programs in the Legislature.

The state aid engineer runs the Office of State Aid Road Construction, which also helps counties maintain the safety and integrity of bridges not owned by the state.

Beyond the issue of public safety, local supervisors and legislators tout bridge replacement and repair as economic development.

“We need to accelerate this program … this is an investment you get a return on,” said House Transportation Committee chairman Robert Johnson, D-Natchez.

“If you are really talking about creating economic development opportunities … you need roads in good shape and bridges in good shape. And you do better if you that done before an industrial prospect comes in and not tell them you’ll get it done after they come.”

Johnson said no one should feel a sense of trepidation when driving across a bridge in the state.

Steve A. Gray, director of government affairs for the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, said local boards are passing resolutions asking the governor to call a special session to address the bridge program.

“This is a public, nonpartisan, everybody benefits issue,” Gray said. “There should be no disagreement on that.”

Gray said the boards of supervisors agree with Johnson and others who say strong infrastructure includes good roads and bridges to attract industry. He said companies want good bridges and road to get products markets and are unlikely to invest in areas where transportation needs aren’t available.

“Just like you don’t want a school bus of kids having to go hours out of its way because of closed bridges, companies don’t want that either,” he said.

Gray said counties have done a good job with the funds they’ve received since the program was enacted and funded in 1994.

Johnson said while a few counties have healthy tax bases to locally bridge replacement, many do not.

Johnson said the program started with a $20 million appropriation and has been part of bond packages passed in recent years by lawmakers.

For the first time in as long as people can remember, lawmakers failed to pass a bond bill in 2012.

The Senate proposed $7 million in cash and $13 million in bonds for the local bridge rehabilitation program. The House bill would have issued $20 million in bonds for the program.

Supervisors also want $3 million for the rural fire truck acquisition program started in 1995. Resolutions adopted by boards of supervisors note a lack of funding “puts all local citizens and their property at risk, including public schools and those attending and working in them.”

The program, which the state insurance commissioner oversees, has placed hundreds of fire trucks into rural Mississippi communities.

Counties have been allowed to apply for trucks on behalf of cities with which they have a contract to provide fire protection within a five-mile area of the municipal limits.

Backers say the program has also served to encourage boards of supervisors to get involved in fire protection when in the past they weren’t. In that way, the program has done more than just put a fire truck in a county; it has gotten more people involved in their local fire departments.