Analysis: MDOT sees good roads as economic engine

Mississippi State NewsJACK ELLIOTT JR.,Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Department of Transportation is dealing with its maintenance crisis the only way it can — shifting money away from new construction to the upkeep of more than 27,000 lane-miles.

MDOT leaders said roads improved through its 1987 road program are now as old as 25 years and are breaking down.

The dilemmas facing MDOT and the three-member elected Transportation Commission are that the cost of asphalt has tripled over recent years and fuel taxes haven’t produced enough money for new construction and maintenance needs.

The three transportation commissioners say they have done the only thing they can — shift construction money to maintenance and hope for the best.

A task force of lawmakers, business leaders and others created by the state Senate to look at highway needs. It will hit the road this fall to hear from the public. The task force expects to have a report completed for the 2014 Legislature.

The task force has found that $400 million is needed annually to maintain Mississippi highways, but only $150 million was being spent. Also while the need to maintain roads grows, the development of more efficient vehicles has depressed Mississippi’s consumption driven motor fuel taxes.

“I comment the Senate for creating the task force … some people over there realized they need to look at the problem. Realistically, I don’t know of anything that will come out of it,” said Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall.

Hall has advocated an increase in the fuel tax to bolster both the construction and maintenance budgets at MDOT. The proposal has generally fallen on deaf ears.

Hall said the 1987 road program, funded with fuel taxes, made no provision for maintenance.

“We are going to build 1,000 miles of road with not a nickel to take care of it,” he said.

Hall said there are 27,156 lane-miles of highway and 4,630 of those miles are in serious need of rehabilitation. He said MDOT figures show the cost at around $960 million.

Southern District Commissioner Tom King and Hall agree the task force’s best work may be in educating the public about highway needs.

“The ’87 program was a wonderful thing but you have to maintain what you build,” said King. “It’s a situation of educating everyone about our need for funding and our work to maintain this highway system. I think a lot of people will recognize that we need more money whether it is fuel taxes or some other avenue.

“It’s going to take a lot of working together and a determination to keep our highways safe — that’s our first priority.”

In Mississippi, drivers pay state and federal taxes of 37.2 cents per gallon of gasoline and 43.2 cents per gallon of diesel — among the lowest in the nation.

Mississippi’s excise tax is 18.8 cents per gallon on gasoline and diesel, with 0.4 cents going to an environmental protection fee. In coastal Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, there is an additional 3-cents-per-gallon seawall tax.

The federal tax is 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel.

Northern District Commissioner Mike Tagert said he hopes the task force recognizes the highway system is one of the state’s economic engines. He said that includes keeping roads and bridges in shape to move raw materials and manufactured products through Mississippi.

“There is a true economic development impact if we have to restrict the movement of goods and services. Our objective is safety and keeping our highways and bridges open. Not being able to do that restricts the ability of our local communities to recruit industry and jobs,” he said.