Outgoing road commissioner wants tax hike

By Emily Le Coz | NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Outgoing Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown renewed calls last week for a fuel-tax increase and warned that without it, Mississippi highways will fall into disrepair.
Brown, who leaves office at the end of the month, voiced his concerns in an opinion piece sent to newspapers statewide, including the Daily Journal.
“A small increase in the federal and state fuel tax could adjust the revenue to allow a renewed robust construction program,” Brown wrote, adding that it would “be a great investment to the citizens and economy resulting in jobs, economic parity in our world economy and continued reduction in crashes and fatalities.”
His urging comes two years after then-Mississippi Department of Transportation Director Butch Brown lobbied the Legislature to raise the state’s 18-cent-per-gallon fuel tax by one nickel. It would have been the first such increase since 1989.
But Brown’s efforts failed.
The other two transportation commissioners weighed in. Dick Hall in the Central District had said in 2009 he supported a fuel-tax increase but doubted it would pass the Legislature. Northern Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert opposes such a tax hike.
“I think that it can stifle job creation more so than the maintenance issues that we do have today,” Tagert said. “Obviously, we’d love to build more roads and certainly as needed to tie it to economic development and job creation, but we must find a more creative way of doing that.”
Tagert instead proposed public-private partnerships such as toll roads.
Mississippi motorists pay a weighted average of 18.8 cents per gallon in state fuel taxes – which includes 0.4 cents statewide for environmental protection, and 3 cents for seawall protection in the three coastal counties. Drivers also pay an 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal fuel tax. They generate about $800 million annually for MDOT.
Because they’re flat taxes instead of percentages, they produce the same revenue today as they did roughly two decades ago. Meanwhile, the cost of road maintenance and construction has swelled an estimated 70 percent.
Over the course of his three terms, Commissioner Brown said that “asphalt paving has risen from $35 per ton to $85 per ton; steel reinforcement has risen from 40 cents per pound to $1.20 per pound.”
He also noted that Mississippi’s fuel tax rate is among the lowest in the region.
According to the American Petroleum Institute, the Magnolia State has the sixth-lowest combined fuel tax in the nation, behind Alaska, Wyoming, New Jersey, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Missouri.
The combined rate includes state, federal and other taxes tacked onto the per-gallon charge. Nationally, the average tax is 48.8 cents per gallon.
But Tagert said he’s not overly worried about Mississippi’s transportation system. The state’s ranked No. 1 in the mid-South for accessibility to highways and No. 16 nationally in its highway system capability, according to a report by the Mississippi Economic Council.
“We do have a very comprehensive and good system in place today,” Tagert said. “It’s not on the verge of catastrophe. We’re not giving up safety because of the financial situation. That ought to be our No. 1 concern to make sure the system is as safe as possible.”
Tagert also said the $231 million worth of active road projects in Northeast Mississippi will continue as scheduled without risk of delay or cancellation due to funding.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com