LLOYD GRAY: Taking care of highways

Lloyd Gray MugThe four-lane highways that move commerce and connect communities in Northeast Mississippi are largely taken for granted these days, but it’s only in the last couple of decades that they took shape.

Getting authorization and funding for four-laning U.S. 78 and U.S. 45, as well as other highways around the state, was a pitched battle in the Legislature. In 1987, Gov. Bill Allain allowed his zeal for reorganizing the state Highway Department, as it was then called, along with resistance to raising taxes, override the economic and public safety necessity of better roads.

Allain vetoed the most ambitious highway program in Mississippi history, a $1.3 billion undertaking initiated by business leaders and key legislators that defined specifically the roads to be built based on demonstrated need. The state House overrode his veto of the program and the 3.6-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and $5 car tag fee to fund it by a single vote.

Because of that vote, Northeast Mississippi and other parts of the state today have good highways and economic development they otherwise would never have achieved, not to mention much less perilous roads on which to travel. By any measure, the money spent on those highways – and the modest tax increase to fund the program – have been a good investment.

But when you build something, you have to maintain it. More miles of highway means more maintenance expense.

Mississippi’s highway system, which consistently ranks high in regional and national surveys, is currently undermaintained. The Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee recently estimated annual maintenance needs at $400 million statewide compared with the $150 million being spent. It’s not hard to see, then, how the PEER report concludes that at that rate half the roads in the state will be in poor condition in another 20 years.
Highway maintenance is a pay-as-you-go business. Part of the problem is that the total tax of 18.4 cents a gallon that pays for it hasn’t changed since that 1987 legislation, when the average price of gas nationally was 96 cents and that state tax amount constituted a much higher proportion of the cost than it does today.

Additionally, as gasoline prices rose, vehicle efficiency increased dramatically and people drove fewer miles to conserve gas, all meaning that a formula dependent on the amount of gas consumed took a hit.

Yet when some transportation officials and a handful of legislators raise the prospect of a modest tax increase to ensure that highway maintenance needs are met, the current attitude of no tax increases, no way, no how, kicks in. In this case, it’s a short-sighted view.

There’s no fairer way to pay for something than to put the onus on the people who use it. The more you use it, the more you pay. That’s what the gasoline tax does.

Yes, a gasoline tax increase would be felt most by moderate and low-income people who have to drive considerable distances to work. But without a good and well-maintained system of highways, the jobs for them to drive to will likely be fewer in coming years.

These days we expect government to continue to deliver the same or better levels of services, but we aren’t necessarily willing to pay for them. Politicians who encourage such thinking aren’t doing us any favors, and they’re certainly not being fiscally responsible.

Maintenance of highways will only get more expensive in the coming years as the roads sustain more wear and tear. A more costly solution will be necessary – unless we want to see a decline in the value of one of the most important jobs-creating investments Mississippi has ever made.

LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.