Report: Highways will face decay

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Half of Mississippi’s highways will be in poor condition by 2035 if the current funding level for transportation needs continues, according to an analysis conducted by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
The analysis continued that $400 million was needed annually to maintain Mississippi highways, but only $150 million was being spent.
Those statistics and others are part of a report compiled by the Legislature’s Performance and Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee for consideration of a special task force created by the state Senate to consider Mississippi’s transportation needs.
The task force, which is comprised of senators, business leaders, transportation leaders and others, plans to have a report completed for the 2014 Legislature. The task force is meeting this week at the state Capitol to hear from economic developers, agriculture representatives and others about their transportation needs.
Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, who is chairing the task force, said it plans to visit communities statewide in October and November to gather input.
The problem, pinpointed in the PEER report, is “growing needs to maintain our state roads, but….with more efficient vehicles on the horizon, the motor fuel taxes we have relied upon to fund state programs and state aid projects in the past will not be reliable in the future.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said modest “shared sacrifices” could garner the funds to meet the bulk of the state’s infrastructure needs, including those of local governments, for the foreseeable future.
Bryan said modest increases in taxes, such as increasing the sales tax from 7 percent to 7.1 percent, the casino gambling tax from 8 percent to 8.1 percent and a similar increase in the income tax, would generate $70 million annually. He said matching those funds with $70 million in state revenue growth would generate $140 million annually that would pay off a $2 billion bond issue.
“The problem we have is that water and sewer systems all over the state need to be repaired,” Bryan said. “We can’t just let water and sewer go away, let alone all the roads that need to be maintained.
“I think this is an opportunity to address all our infrastructure needs and help cities and counties with projects they can’t afford at the same time.”
The alternative, Bryan said, is “to start talking about what roads we want to abandon.”
Simmons said the task force will be considering suggestions, such as those Bryan made Wednesday. But to convince the House and Senate leadership and Gov. Phil Bryant to get on board might be another story.
Simmons said he is hoping the task force will be a catalyst to start building support for such an effort.
Task force member Scott Waller with the Mississippi Economic Council said various studies indicate that the state’s “major four-lane system is really good. It rates high. Our major deficiency is in our secondary roads that support those” four-lane highways. Plus he added that a priority must be providing funds to maintain the current four-lane system.
Waller said, “It goes without saying an excellent transportation system is vital to economic development.”
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com