MDOT executive pushes for 5-cent gas tax hike

TUPELO – The executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation told a business group Friday that he supports a 5-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax to help fund the state’s road projects.
At the Community Development Foundation’s First Friday event, Larry “Butch” Brown said it’s “absolutely critical” that MDOT find new sources of income.
“If we don’t get new taxes, we’re going to be in trouble,” Brown said.
The primary source of state revenue for the Department of Transportation is an 18.4-cent tax on a gallon gas and diesel. MDOT gets about 73 percent of that tax, with the rest going for county projects. Brown said MDOT now gets about $300 million in state tax revenues.
Brown said the money goes toward new road construction, infrastructure improvements and road maintenance.
If MDOT doesn’t find new income, it will be a maintenance-only department in three years, he said.
Brown likened the tax to the regular rise and fall in gas prices. He said a nickel increase in the price goes to “someone in the oil and gas business.” But a nickel tax, he said, would pay for the state’s road maintenance, bridge improvements and projects needed for economic development.
“You’re going to get all the benefits of a safe infrastructure program for your nickel – or you can keep your money going to the oil and gas men,” he said. “It’s got to change. Think about that.”
After the program, Brown said he is “strongly in favor” of working with a grassroots group known as GetSMART – Start Mississippi’s Approved Roads Today – to use money from local governments and the private sector to support the state’s road projects.
However, he said he’s not in favor of “diverting any of our funds into GetSMART.”
GetSMART, which is chaired by Bill Renick of Three Rivers Planning and Development District, has proposed a Transportation Infrastructure Bank, a state-run bank that would serve as a conduit to build Mississippi highways. It has been met with skepticism from key legislators.
GetSMART is focused on finding ways to complete the Vision 21 four-laning program approved by the 2002 Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. State Highways 15, 6 and 25 are included in the program.
Renick estimates it will take 50-60 years to complete the 3,500-mile program at its current rate of financing.
However, Brown said after Friday’s event that “Vision 21 is already funded.”
Brown explained that MDOT’s originally proposed Vision 21 program – not the version passed by the Legislature – is funded.
“Once we complete the Vision 21 program as it was originally conceived, we will move forward with other projects,” Brown said.
The order of completion is determined by capacity needs and economic development needs, he said.
“Priority from a community only has a small part,” Brown said.

Bobby Harrison contributed to this story. Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or carlie.kollath@djournal.com.

Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal