EDITORIAL: Unpleasant reality

By NEMS Daily Journal

Newspapers across Mississippi headlined a story in their print and on-line editions last week that did not surprise public officials and civic leaders who keep up with the costs of highway transportation: Mississippi’s gasoline tax revenue isn’t adequate for the demand for maintenance and construction costs.
The expected but glum news came from Butch Brown, the recently reconfirmed executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Brown, in addition, is president-elect of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and he used that organization’s campaign to raise awareness across the U.S. to break the news to Mississippians about our state’s highway revenue situation.
Brown said Mississippi’s gasoline tax is too low and that our state should stop diverting fuel tax money into other programs while new construction, improvements, repair and replacement of bridges are rising in importance and urgency.
The Journal continues raising the issue of highways, revenue and pressing needs because great and carefully developed plans for new roads statewide will grind to a screeching, dusty halt if the revenue situation isn’t in some way improved.
Progress is evident, but can it be sustained?
This week, crews are working on U.S. Highway 78 between U.S. 45 and Belden, upgrading it to become Interstate 22 in about three years, perhaps less if one end or another of the Birmingham-to-Memphis corridor is hooked to an interstate highway.
A few miles south of the Tupelo High School exit on the Natchez Trace Parkway, great swaths of dirt have been graded away as the new Mississippi Highway 6 moves toward its planned intersection with U.S. 45 in south Tupelo. Rise above the trees at the construction on the Trace and a long ribbon of new construction stretches toward Pontotoc, where already four-laned Highway 6 awaits its final connection into Tupelo.
Highway 6, which is mostly paid by federal funds, needs a four-lane connector to U.S. 78 at Sherman, and the access road to Toyota. That new highway will be paid substantially by state funds. Will there be enough revenue to build it within a reasonable time?
Work on Mississippi Highway 15 four-laning is under way from south of New Albany to the Tippah County line north of New Albany. Will funding be steady enough to accelerate that badly needed improvement in other counties on the statewide length of Highway 15?
Name a county, and there’s a highway either scheduled for work or in need of work.
Our state’s 18.5 cents per gallon state tax on gasoline has not changed since 1987, the year the 1987 Highway Program started its unprecedented improvements. Gas then was about $1 per gallon. Last summer it hit $4 per gallon. This year it’s back down to the $2.30-$2.60 range, depending on the week.
Our highway program has gained nothing with the price increases, and that probably must change if highway aspirations are met.
Many politicians won’t go near any kind of gasoline tax increase, but those same politicians want to be standing behind the ribbons claming credit the day they’re cut – if ever. Nothing will happen without courageously persuasive leadership.
Most politicians, and many other people, won’t be alive to see completions if highways depend on getting built with current revenues: The Vision 21 program could take 60 to 100 years.
Maybe we should dream of having particle beam transporters like on Star Trek, and our problems then would be solved.
But what about this year and 10 years down the road?
“At that time (1987), remember back, gas was selling for a dollar a gallon. That was 18.5 percent as a percent of the cost of fuel,” Brown said in an Associated Press story. “Now ratchet forward, when you get to $4 a gallon do the math.”
At $4 a gallon, about the peak price for regular gasoline last year, the tax works out to be about 4.62 percent of the cost of filling the tank, Brown said.
Mississippi’s gasoline tax combined with the federal fuel tax, is 37.2 cents per gallon. That’s the eighth lowest in the nation and well below the 45.6 cents nationwide average. All of our neighbors have higher fuel taxes; they’re building new, better roads, too.