By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – A task force unable to agree on a recommendation to raise taxes to improve the state’s roads and bridges will instead hold meetings designed to educate the public on the need for more funds to improve Mississippi’s transportation system.
“We are going to share with the community and say, give us some input,” said Senate Transportation Chair Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland.
While all the details have yet to be worked out, the task force has agreed to meet Dec. 2 at the Capps Center on the Mississippi Delta Community College campus in Indianola, on Dec. 16 at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and on a date yet to be determined at the University of Southern Mississippi.
The location at Ole Miss and other details will be announced later, Simmons said. The meetings will be from 6 to 8 p.m.
The Senate earlier this year formed the task force of senators, business and agriculture leaders and people involved in transportation to look at funding needs to maintain existing transportation infrastructure and to expand the system.
The group began meeting in the summer and gathered information on state and local infrastructure needs. But it wanted additional information, such as whether the Mississippi Department of Transportation is operating at “optimum efficiency.” A review of the agency is being conducted and other studies are underway, but they’re not expected to be finished before the task force is to make a recommendation to the 2014 Senate.
At this point, the task force likely will highlight transportation needs without making recommendations. Some hope the public meetings will begin a process of generating grassroots support for additional revenue.
The meetings will highlight that the current 18.4 cent-per-gallon tax on motor fuel, which provides the state’s share of most roadwork, is no longer adequate. And as cars become more energy efficient, and in some instances no longer use gasoline, the tax will provide less funds.
“There are serious questions about the viability of the fuel tax,” said Ted Booth, of the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee, which is providing research for the task force. “Cars are not going to be as inefficient as in the past.”
The task force also will present to the public that MDOT needs $600 million annually to replace and repair substandard bridges and repair roads, but only receives $200 million annually for maintenance.
The state has 1,054 bridges in need of repair. The task force heard that 50 percent of the state’s roads will be in poor condition by 2035 at the current pace.