OUR OPINION: Assess the effort as well as costs

Daily Journal Editorial

The special Senate task force on Mississippi highway needs reconvened last week in the Capitol, with additional starkly honest testimony about how much more money is needed to keep highways up to grade.

The leader of a Senate transportation study committee, Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, proposes the state levy $700 million in new taxes to support road maintenance as well as some other non-transportation related projects.

It would be the largest state tax increase in more than 20 years. Simmons said it is only a starting point for discussion, and he invited other proposals.

Immediate reports said some members of his committee aren’t interested in that much spending and may oppose any new taxes.

That’s not a new twist. It s a tired, old wishful thinking because the maintenance situation is what it is: Highways are crumbling because, for lack of money, they have not been adequately maintained and roads that a few years ago were new and unblemished are showing wear, tear and deterioration.

It’s correct that the Senate asked the special panel to examine transportation needs and make recommendations to lawmakers in 2014, but does the Senate really want facts? Facts, as many people have noted over time, are inconvenient for politicians who would prefer magic fixes.

Simmons, chair of the Transportation Committee, also spent time stressing accountabilities in spending additional money. Many Mississippians are skeptical of spending by MDOT officials over a long span.

Simmons said the goal is to develop some proposals before holding town hall meetings across the state in October with the plan of having a recommendation for the Legislature to consider finalized in December. Simmons said he hopes to build public support through the statewide meetings.

Massive, coordinated, deep support for a statewide highway system led to passage of the 1987 Highway Program – major roads on which Mississippians drive by the hundreds of thousands every day. The program was successful, but its products are wearing out.

Supporters of the revenue increase said since 1987, when the current revenue structure was put in place, maintenance costs for roadways have risen 128 percent while the revenue generated by an 18.4 cent-per-gallon tax on motor fuel has remained flat or even in decline.

Because the 1987 program and the politics required to pass it are fading in memory in the 26 years since its enactment, the dynamics of that effort should be revisited and re-examined. Seldom in the period since the beginning of the 20th century has any other effort so galvanized public opinion in support of a major undertaking. Everyone who supported the program knew and honestly stated that an expensive commitment would be required before there was massive economic payback in new development, safety and convenience.

No one would return to the pre-1987 highway days, but how many are willing to bare-knuckle the issues through both the court of public opinion and the Legislature?