OUR OPINION: Highway maintenance funds rising as 2013 need priority

By NEMS Daily Journal

The brightest spotlight on the 2013 legislative session shines on education proposals, but substantial energy is under development from all across the state to again visit the long-term funding of highway maintenance, a necessity that has fallen off the pace of complete overlay every 10 years.
The problem, as the elected commissioners agree, is the gap between maintenance costs and the revenue stream that’s been in place – based on fuel taxes of 18 cents per gallon – since 1987.
The fuel tax is per gallon, not a percentage of fuel costs, so rising costs per gallon don’t necessarily benefit revenues unless actual fuel consumption steadily goes up, which has not been the case as vehicles have become more fuel efficient, and as some motorists drive less because of the fuel cost at the pump.
The revenue stream was set in the 1987 Highway Program, the state’s first statewide four-lane program, which is the main energy behind the four-laning of highways like U.S. 78 and 45, plus major state corridors, in the past 26 years.
These safer, faster 1987 program roads, however, are deteriorating as all high-use highways do over time.
The department’s standard maintenance policy of completing systemwide overlays every 10 years – 10 percent per year – has fallen to 3 percent per year because higher per-mile costs are overwhelming available revenue.
The cost is $250,000 or more per mile, compared to about $75,000 per mile in 1987, MDOT Tupelo District Engineer Bill Jamieson said Monday.
Changing the numbers is not up to staff member but falls to the Legislature and elected officials from the governor down through the Transportation Commission.
As some longtime highway advocates have said, the essential element that hasn’t come forward as in 1987 is the statewide business community. Its support must be visible and vocal.
In the 1913 budget (this fiscal year) MDOT asked for $181 million for highway maintenance and is asking for $190 million in the 2014 budget.
The cost sounds daunting but it is a drop in the bucket compared to where costs could rise if adequate maintenance is indefinitely delayed.
The 1987 program was a big bullet for the Legislature to bite, but it saw the need and exercised its will, to extraordinary effect. That story must continue to save the investment.