OUR OPINION: Have the necessary talks about highways

By NEMS Daily Journal

The increasing need for action to upgrade maintenance on Mississippi’s highways and honestly examine the urgency of completing highways already approved but funded only incrementally climbed to higher visibility this week.
Mississippi Economic Council CEO Blake Wilson told the House Transportation Committee that MEC has undertaken a year-long study of infrastructure needs. While he didn’t commit support for raising the state’s gasoline tax – the tact favored by Republican Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall – Wilson noted that MEC doesn’t fund studies unless there’s a belief that some action is required.
Mississippi’s business community, strangled by an inadequate and crumbling highway system dating from the 1930s, in 1987 threw itself solidly behind passage of a four-lane highway program that passed – with higher fuel taxes. The result is a statewide system of four-lane arteries, although not all those highways envisioned under the 1987 program and a successor program called Vision21 have been fully developed.
The 18.4 cents per gallon tax adopted to build the 1987 Highway Program was the last state tax increase for highways. Hall, and others, say the levy has diminished in purchasing power over the past 25 years and is no longer adequate to build highways needed to develop economic potential and provide safer travel.
Hall noted that highway construction costs have risen 300 percent since 1987.
The new Mississippi Highway 9 from Sherman to Highway 6/U.S. 278 near Pontotoc cost about $90 million – approximately $9 million per mile for the 10-mile corridor. The contract was a design build plan, with expedited funding and time-based incentives, which was more expensive in the short term, but the costs support Hall’s point.
The longer Mississippi waits to make a strategic decision to maintain and build adequate highways, the more expensive the needed roads become.
Old Highway 45 in Lee County became one of the first paved roads in the South in 1914, and even at the then unheard-of price of $8,100 per mile was an immediate success. Political leaders, business community and the residents got what they paid for – and wanted.
The same principle applies to highways in 2012, moving ahead.