OUR OPINION: Highway funding needs going on a road tour

Mississippi’s surge in four-lane highway construction beginning with the 1987 Highway Program brought inevitable and correct cautions that what’s built must be maintained and expanded.

When the first-ever four-lanes crisscrossing the state began to open they were by all previous measures perfect – no potholes, no cracks, no wear-and-tear. And, many conjectured, no worry. Wrong.

Warnings about maintenance costs weren’t heeded, and repairs remained a bare minimum because adequate funding wasn’t available. The three-member, elected Transportation Commission has cited maintenance and new construction needs for years – without success.

Since the summer, a special Mississippi Senate task force has held hearings and tried, without success, to agree on a recommendation for raising adequate revenue.

The task force also will present to the public the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s on-the-record need for $600 million annually to replace and repair substandard bridges and repair roads; it receives $200 million annually for maintenance.

Last week, task force chairman Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, announced a series of public meetings to present facts and gather public feedback. The meeting most convenient for Northeast Mississippians has been set Dec. 16 in Oxford at the University of Mississippi, with a precise location to be announced for a session scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Sen.. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, a task force member, said last week it is hoped facts about funding, highway conditions and revenue needs can stimulate public discussion about how revenue can be increased.

Bryan said declining gasoline consumption and increasing miles per gallon combined create an inadequate revenue stream on a flat per-gallon tax of 18.4 cents.

A lack of consensus is not surprising because highway users of all stripes have special agendas, usually affecting individual and/or corporate bottom lines and political positions.

The same kind of skepticism and outright opposition had to be overcome in 1987 when only an intense, passionate and carefully networked statewide effort eventually won the tax increase necessary to build four-lane highways statewide. Everybody approves the results; the victory was hard-won by the narrowest of margins.

An effort of even greater intensity may be required for a new revenue increase.