Ten years ago this fall, a group of civic minded, progressive

Ten years ago this fall, a group of civic minded, progressive Mississippi leaders joined minds and influence in promoting an air-tight, sure-fire, statewide highway construction program.

Mississippi’s old Highway Department seemed politically incapable of building highways from Point A to Point B, and money seldom was available in sufficient quantity at the right place and the right time. Our highway system, with most major arterial roads built in the 1930s, retarded prosperity and became more unsafe as the traffic flow overwhelmed the roads’ capacity.

The lay people and the legislators involved in what became known as the AHEAD organization put together a powerful, statewide coalition. Public support for new highways pushed AHEAD forward as people demanded four-lane roads that moved them and their goods more quickly and more safely.

The Legislature responded with passage of a 14-year, statewide construction program determined by measuring highway use against vehicle capacity. The standard mandated the building of highways to match needs, with areas of greatest need getting the first attention. The idea was so good and so appealing that it survived Gov. Bill Allain’s inexplicably backward veto and became law. It still dictates highway construction policy.

The 1987 program $1.6 billion funded by a combination of gasoline taxes, taxes on car tags, taxes on road contractors, federal funds and state matching funds works as it should:

– Department of Transportation figures, released last week and compiled through Jan.1, show 299.1 miles of new four-lane highways completed, including U.S. 78 from the Tennessee line to the Alabama line. An additional 305.4 miles of the Phase I and Phase II highways are under construction.

– Extensive construction is started on U.S. 45, U.S 45A and U.S 72 in Northeast Mississippi. All right of way has been purchased or soon will be purchased for U.S. 72 and U.S 45. All right of way has been bought for U.S. 45.

– More than 600 additional miles, including Mississippi 15 and Mississippi 25, will be improved (possibly four-laned) under provisions of a Phase IV of the 1987 program added in 1994 and required to be under contract by 2011.

– The Phase IV program will bring the total outlay to about $3 billion.

Mississippi usually plays catch-up in any undertaking like major highway construction. The 1987 program, if allowed to do its mandated work, will place our state in an enviable position. However, the Legislature must provide adequate maintenance funds for the hundreds of miles of new highways or they will crumble under heavy use.

The Legislature showed its willingness to require the building of new hghways. The logical next action is a parallel commitment to maintain them.

Click video to hear audio