By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The priority for the Mississippi Department of Transportation for the upcoming fiscal year will be preserving existing highways instead of building new ones.
“We are taking money that would have gone into construction of new four-lanes and putting it into preservation of the current system,” Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall recently told members of the Legislative Budget Committee.
Hall has longed maintained that the current 18.4-cent tax on a gallon of motor fuel does not generate enough funds to construct new highways and maintain the current system. A special task force formed by the 2012 Senate is currently studying the issue, but thus far has balked on recommending a tax increase to generate additional funds for the Department of Transportation.
MDOT, which is overseen by the three elected commissioners, presented a budget proposal to the Legislative Budget Committee that would set aside only $30 million for new construction.
Jarrod Ravencraft, the director of public affairs for MDOT, said the $30 million budgeted in 2015 “will mainly cover contractual obligations for projects approved in previous years. If the $30 million was spent on one project to widen a four-lane, divided highway to six lanes, it could widen only eight miles.”
The budget proposal MDOT recently presented is for the fiscal year that begins July 1. For the current fiscal year, $150 million was spent on new construction.
Senate President Pro Tem Terry Brown, R-Columbus, questioned how the 18.4-cent per gallon fuel tax was enough for MDOT to use to fund more than 1,000 miles of new construction that was part of the historic 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program, but is now not enough to maintain the current program and undertake a more modest new construction effort.
“Highway construction costs have increased 300 percent,” Hall said while the 18.4-cent per gallon tax is now equivalent to an 8-cent per gallon tax. When looking at those numbers, “it’s not hard to figure out,” Hall explained.
Plus, MDOT officials also have conceded that while there are more vehicles on the road than in 1987, they get superior gas mileage. Thus, motorists are buying less gasoline.
Revenue generated by the tax has remained fairly consistent. In 1989 the tax generated $219 million annually compared to a projected $287 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
The 18.4-cent per gallon tax on motor fuel is the primary source of state revenue for MDOT, which uses those funds to draw down federal transportation funds.
The proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $927 million, including $460 million in federal funds.
Of that budget, a little more than 80 percent is slated to be used for construction and maintenance. To be broken down even further, $414.9 million is for what is known as system preservation, such as bridge replacement and major pavement rehabilitation, while $190.6 million is for routine maintenance, such a mowing, fixing potholes and doing overlays.
Hall has said in the past that the agency would be forced to make tough choices, and that a priority would have to be placed on maintaining the current system, much of which was built through the 1987 Four-Lane Program.