OUR OPINION: Highway maintenance falling farther behind

One of Mississippi’s greatest economic development achievements was the 1987 highway program, which changed the transportation landscape in Northeast Mississippi and helped power the jobs-creation successes of the last two and a half decades.

It’s also clear that the four-laning of the formerly treacherous routes of U.S. 78 and U.S. 45 greatly enhanced safety as well.

A fuel tax increase paid for construction of these better highways in our region and in other parts of the state. But a major problem is that no funding source was developed for the maintenance of these roads.

As a result, officials today estimate that the Mississippi Department of Transportation is about $400 million per year short of the funds it needs to keep state highways in good shape. The 18.4-cent fuel tax hasn’t kept pace with the need since it was increased by the 1987 law. More fuel-efficient vehicles and the incentive to drive less – and thus use less gas and pay less tax – because of much higher fuel prices has further crimped maintenance budgets.

Yet the Legislature won’t address the issue this year. It’s adopted what House Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, calls a “culture of do nothing” on the issue. Johnson recently told a group of business leaders they would have to be the ones to set a fire under lawmakers if anything is to happen to improve deteriorating roads and bridges in the state.

That’s how the 1987 program got its impetus – and the fuel tax increase to fund it – over a combination of inertia and overt opposition. The business community demanded it.

Legislators are scared to death of anything that might require raising additional revenue – even something as fundamental as road maintenance and safety. A transportation task force that met between the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions couldn’t even agree on a recommendation.

The Legislature’s “do-nothing” stance has to change on this issue; it’s too critical to the economic health of this region and state.

The Mississippi Economic Council, which represents the state’s business leadership, plans a study that will lead to recommendations after the 2015 state elections. It will be a comprehensive examination of the state’s roads, bridges, railroads, ports and intermodal facilities.

In the meantime, without legislative action the state will fall farther behind in its maintenance and the costs will continue to rise.

Mississippi has made too many improvements in its highway system, and seen too many benefits from those improvements, to squander it all by refusing to take care of what it has.

  • Guest

    Legalizing marijuana for medical & recreational use will not only decrease crime caused by prohibition and the black market, but the excise tax could go toward our highways without causing unnecessary distress among our legislators. They have to be open minded and look for new ways to capitalize on upcoming industries like Cannabis and Hemp. #PutReligionAside for just a moment.

  • Tupelo_Guy

    To not cause any unnecessary distress among our legislators when trying to find funding for our highways, they should consider legalizing cannabis and hemp. Both would make great agricultural strides in Mississippi, thus making us #1 for a long time agriculturally. Think billions of dollars coming from excise tax that would be going to our highways and even schools, drug educational programs. Cannabis should be used responsibly by adults 21 and older, not children. Drug dealers don’t ID your children for drugs. If you want to keep that out of their hands, then legalization is the answer. With hemp, you can’t really get high off it. Our original founder, George Washington, grew hemp. We’re missing the benefits of saving our trees, and not have to use cotton to provide us everyday necessitates.

    Our State legislators just need to be open minded, listen to their voters, and to put religion aside for a moment. Religion doesn’t always have to be a factor when it comes to any topic.

  • barney fife

    There is a considerable amount of untapped funding, if only the legislature would recognize it.
    *
    Reform our marijuana laws.

  • FrereJocques

    Your article is spot on. However, we have a state government which is more interested in passing religious laws and making sure poor people stay poor and putting police in their bedrooms and doctors’ offices. Until the public decides they’ve had enough and vote these people out, nothing will change.

  • TWBDB

    A well maintained infrastructure is central to attracting new business to the state. Period.

  • charlie

    Half a billion $’s in the rainy day fund and it’s coming a monsoon. Phlibert is worried that his sheeple will think that he isn’t conservative enough. Besides, a outlet mall under construction may need a few million to hire some minimum wages jobs and work 30 hours a week.

  • barney fife

    From CNN Money: “Colorado raked in about $2 million from taxes on recreational marijuana in January, the first month it was legal to sell non-medicinal pot in the state.”
    *
    OK, Mississippi elected officials – does that $2 million in sales taxes get your attention?
    Reform our marijuana laws!