m1491 BC-MS-XGR-Highways 1stLd-Writethru 01-17 0506

Highway officials say problems with four-lane began in 1987

The Associated Press

JACKSON – Mississippi’s four-lane road construction program is underfunded, transportation officials say, but the problem is in how the program was set up.

Highway agency officials defended the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s performance Wednesday in the wake of a report that has been the catalyst of at least one proposal to rid Mississippi of its three-member elected Transportation Commission.

The Senate Highways and Transportation Committee heard from a legislative watchdog agency on its report that criticized MDOT operations, including its estimate of the 1987 four-lane program costs.

The report of the legislative Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee found MDOT had underestimated the cost of the program. PEER said a $1.6 billion program in 1987 will now cost more than $5 billion to complete. The higher estimate includes more roads that were added to the program by lawmakers in 1994.

Transportation Commissioner Zack Stewart, who represents the northern district, said costs were underestimated partly because the Legislature, especially the House, wanted a “bare bones” program funded by gasoline taxes.

Stewart said MDOT officials did not try to hide figures or deceive anyone. He said officials were responding to what the lawmakers asked for in a highway program.

He said MDOT did not include inflation figures in its estimate of the program’s cost because at that time inflation was 3 percent and collections from the gasoline tax were rising 3 percent a year.

By 1993, Stewart said he saw that the program was costing more than expected and while he mentioned that to some lawmakers he was as forceful as he should have been.

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