Legislators push bond bills for transportation needs

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The two chairs of the Transportation committees in the Mississippi Legislature hope to reach agreement on bond proposals – in the $300 million range – to build four-lane highways and to repair substandard bridges.
Both Senate Transportation Chair Tom King, R-Petal, and his House counterpart, Warner McBride, D-Courtland, are expected to begin work soon on proposals to sell bonds to finance transportation projects.
Many of the roads that need improvement are in Northeast Mississippi, such as Mississippi Highway 15, which runs through the counties of Tippah Union, Pontotoc, Chickasaw – all the way to the Gulf Coast – and portions of Mississippi 9 in Pontotoc County and Mississippi 7 in Marshall and Lafayette counties.
State Highway 25 in Itawamba and Monroe counties also has been slated for work, as well as others in the area.
While $300 million will put only a small dent in needed work, McBride and King said it would provide a positive jolt to both the state’s transportation system and economy.
In recent years, the House has passed bond projects for transportation work, but they have died in the Senate.
King has said the Republican-led Senate has resisted bond proposals for transportation projects because of opposition from Gov. Haley Barbour. The Republican governor has strived to hold down the amount the state is required to pay each year for bond debt.
It is not certain how Barbour will feel about bond projects this year, with the state facing massive budget problems because of a slowdown in tax collections.
Bond debt can add to budget woes, but because of low interest rates that added cost might be minimal, some say.
In addition, King and McBride said that neglecting the state’s transportation needs is harmful on several levels.
A good transportation system is a key to attracting jobs to the state, they said.
As important, they added, is that highway construction is in itself an economic booster.
“It is an investment that will not only restore … Mississippi’s infrastructure, but stimulate the economy and create jobs,” King said.
According to a report released last week by TRIP, a national transportation research and advocacy group, each $1 billion invested in highway construction creates 27,800 jobs.
The TRIP report said the $350 million for road and bridge improvements Mississippi received as part of the federal stimulus package “represents a down payment toward addressing the state’s long-term road and bridge funding shortfall.”
But during the next 10 years, the state will need about $6 billion more in state and national aid than it is scheduled to receive to make needed repairs, according to the TRIP report.
The report said, “22 percent of the major roads in Mississippi are in poor or very poor condition, providing motorists with a rough ride.” The “rough ride” adds $394 annually to the operating cost of each vehicle, the report claimed.
TRIP also found that the state “has the eighth highest percentage of bridges in the nation that are structurally deficient,” estimating that one-fourth of Mississippi’s spans fit into that category.
“We have to come up with innovative ways to rebuild Mississippi’s infrastructure,” King said.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, has long argued that it makes sense to bond a portion of highways construction because the roads still will be usable long after the bond issues are paid off.
He said it makes particular sense to issue bonds now during the economic downturn.
Highway construction, he said, “will put people to work who are otherwise drawing unemployment.”
And during the current financial crisis, Bryan said, the low interest the state would have to pay makes it even more attractive to issue bonds.
King agreed: “Now is the time to issue bonds.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.