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.