BILL MINOR: Highway maintenance issues rise

BILL MINOR

BILL MINOR

Dick Hall reminds his fellow Republicans that Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, two of the party’s 20th century presidential icons, were strong advocates of levying necessary taxes to build the nation’s magnificent interstate highway system.

But the Central District transportation commissioner is having a hard time convincing the state’s current GOP leadership that without some $400 million in new revenue, Mississippi is in danger of losing its prized 1,600 mile highway corridor system.

“If we don’t get the money to repair and maintain our four-lane corridor system, people will soon be driving on gravel roads again,” declared Hall, who is very likely Mississippi’s longest-serving Republican in state elective office.

As Allied Supreme Commander in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower had marveled at Germany’s autobahn highways. On becoming U.S. president in 1952 he made his top priority construction of a highway system linking all parts of this country. He knew it would cost money, lots of money, and he asked Americans to pay taxes for the privilege of driving on these new safe, limited-access highways.

Ike had trouble in Congress finding a spending formula palatable to the states. Finally, the super-highway program was adopted with a 90-10 match – 90 percent federal funds and 10 percent state.

While Mississippi by 1987 would soon have a network of controlled access interstate-type highways criss-crossing the state’s long, lean contour, it still didn’t have a four-lane link between the Northeast corner of the state and the state capital in Jackson. Some progressive business leaders such as publisher George McLean in Tupelo had for years waged an aggressive campaign in the Legislature for a four-lane statewide highway system, but had to settle for a piecemeal plan that fell far short of their goal.

McLean passed on and progressive industrialist Owen Cooper of Yazoo took the lead. This time, the group, calling itself AHEAD had strong legislative allies headed by House members Billy McCoy of Rienzi and John Pennebaker of New Albany. The mild-mannered Pennebaker let the combative McCoy lead the battle. And battle McCoy did, all the way to the last step: overturning Gov. Bill Allain’s veto of the final product.

The highway forces had started out with a plan calling for a 5-cent gas tax hike to launch the four-lane highway system. But during the course of the battle to nail down a modern statewide four-lane system once and for all, the strategy shifted to a flat 18-cent gasoline tax and elimination of the state sales tax on gas.

Trouble is, while the funding mechanism made it possible to construct the 1,600 mile system, there was no maintenance or repair money provided in the plan. Of course, if the sales tax on gasoline had not been eliminated back in 1987, today it would raise ample money for maintenance, even at a reduced tax rate. Some other revenue idea, maybe a user fee, would be palatable to the anti-tax crowd to keep the state’s highly valuable investment from crumbling.

Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.