JACKSON – In 1986-87, the thinking of political and business leaders merged to develop and enact a massive four-lane highway program called AHEAD.
“That program helped economic development,” said Northern District Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor of Holly Springs, who in the 1980s chaired the Senate Transportation Committee and helped steer the program to passage. “I don’t think anyone ever dared to dream we would have the economic development the program brought.”
Political and business leaders still maintain that a good highway system is crucial to economic development, but the enthusiasm and single-mindness to build highways that existed in the 1980s seem to be missing now.
Efforts persist to improve Mississippi’s transportation system. Recognizing the importance of highways to economic development, the Legislature passed and then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed into law Vision 21 in 2002 as a continuation of AHEAD.
Since then, the Vision 21 construction projects have progressed slowly. A report by a legislative oversight committee surmised it could take more than 100 years to complete the 1,277-mile Vision 21 at its current pace.
During this decade, scatter-shot attempts have been made to jump-start highway construction, but nothing similar to the 1987 effort. And in the midst of those efforts, Mississippi has seen:
n Debate over whether to change from an elected to appointed transportation commission.
n In-fighting among commissioners.
n Criticism of the often-controversial Department of Transportation Executive Director Larry “Butch” Brown.
n Stagnation in the agency’s revenue stream.
n A seemingly yearly assault by the Legislature and governor on the funds dedicated to highway construction projects.
Despite the turmoil and tough times, no dramatic changes have been made to MDOT, though some have advocated them.
Bill Renick of Ashland, the chair of GetSMART highway advocacy group, says no one should be satisfied with the pace of road construction in Mississippi.
“I don’t know where to place the blame, but I don’t think the system is as aggressive as it could be in building roads,” said Renick, whose group comprises business leaders across the state trying to replicate the enthusiasm and success of AHEAD. “Whether that is the Legislature’s fault or MDOT’s fault…there is probably enough blame to go around for several people.
“I think there are opportunities to build highways faster than we are building them under the current funding stream. I don’t see it being done.”
Renick acknowledges the difficulties caused by MDOT’s stagnant revenue stream. The primary source of state revenue for the Department of Transportation is an 18-cent-per-gallon tax on motor fuel, a rate that hasn’t changed since 1989.
With people driving less and using cars that get better gas mileage, the revenue has had little or no growth while the cost of building highways has quadrupled in the last 20 years.
Renick has advocated leveraging a portion of the revenue – the $200 million per year that is supposed to be dedicated to the Vision 21 Program – to issue bonds that would accelerate the amount of highway work that could begin immediately.
Renick said bond experts have looked at his proposal and said it would work.
But Brown and legislative leaders remain skeptical. Brown said it would zap the agency’s resources and leave it with little leeway to deal with needs that might develop. House Transportation Committee Chair Warner McBride, D-Courtland, has similar concerns.
“We want to build roads,” Brown said. “We’re not trying to slow down the process.”
Brown said the agency has worked with the Legislature to speed up the process through innovative approaches such as partnering with local governments and using their bonding authority to build more roads.
In the coming months, the commission is expected to reach a deal with a private company to build Mississippi’s first toll road – from the Jackson International Airport to downtown Jackson. A toll road also remains a possibility from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Jackson, but it is not likely that a toll road will be the answer to any of Northeast Mississippi’s transportation needs.
Bond bills died
During the past two legislative sessions, McBride has steered through the House bond bills of as much as $300 million that were designed in part to spur some of the needed construction projects in Northeast Mississippi. Among them: state Highway 9 in Pontotoc County and state Highway 15 in Tippah, Union and Pontotoc counties.
While those proposals have passed the House, they have been killed in the Senate. Two years ago, Senate Transportation Committee Chair Tom King, R-Petal, attributed the bond bill’s demise to Gov. Haley Barbour’s opposition to it. Barbour has been reluctant to pass bond proposals that increase the state’s debt.
King, citing needs and the jobs that would be created by increased highway construction, said he will try again in 2010 to get a bond package through the Senate.
“I believe in it that much,” he said. “I think it will make a difference and do some good.”
Two years ago Barbour tried to use money from a Hurricane Katrina fund to improve highways near the planned Toyota plant at Blue Springs in Northeast Mississippi. But his plan was defeated after Gulf Coast legislators objected.
On highways, Barbour said, “My priorities are centered on economic development and job creation. Right now, a 16-mile stretch of Highway 9 near Pontotoc and Highway 15 from Ripley to Pontotoc are at the top of my priority list because of the impact the Toyota plant can have.”
Barbour said MDOT has not taken into account the impact of economic development projects in its planning.
“Whenever we have a dynamic change – a major industry coming in – we need to re-examine transportation priorities,” he said. “Improving highways in a region based on a major economic development project will give all the residents in the region benefits and opportunities.”
Overall, though, the criticism of the MDOT is muted, despite the slow pace of road construction.
“I think MDOT does a good job with the money it has presently,” King said.
Even opposition to the controversial Brown is limited.
In the past, Brown has been described as arrogant and unresponsive to legislators. He has been at the center of a feud among the three elected transportation commissioners. He is supported by two – Minor and Wayne Brown of the Southern District – who hired him and opposed by Central District Commissioner Dick Hall.
Yet he was reconfirmed earlier this year with only five dissenting votes in the 52-member Senate.
“I feel like he has done a good job,” said King. “People, I understand, have a problem with his personality – not his performance.”
Despite the call for faster highway construction, the Legislature, with the governor’s consent, has taken hundreds of millions in funds dedicated to the Department of Transportation to plug holes in budgets for other agencies.
“We have to stop spending our tax revenue on things that don’t have anything to do with roads and bridges,” Hall said. “…There has been well over $300 million taken…That would build a lots of roads and bridges.”
In past years, some have contended that an appointed commission would function more efficiently than an elected commissioner. But there seems to be no political will to replace the three elected commissioners with an appointed system.
“I talk to people all over the country and 90 percent of them say they wish they could go from an appointed to elected system,” Minor said.
Renick said he is less concerned about the governance of the agency than he is about the construction of highways.
“Granted, there is not the groundswell of support there was to improve highways like there was in ’87,” Renick said. “But sometimes, you would hope our leaders would see the need and act without having to be spurred on by a groundswell.”
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal