SID SALTER: States explore options over road and bridge repair funding

SID SALTER

SID SALTER

While there were a number of legislative victories during the 2014 session of the Mississippi Legislature, lawmakers could not reach agreement on a long term fix for an old problem – the fact that the revenue structure for funding road and bridge construction and repair in Mississippi isn’t keeping pace with the projected costs of the state’s needs.

Mississippi is neither alone in the policy dilemma nor alone in the decision to kick the can down the political road for another year. But nationally, a number of states are beginning to be forced to deal with the issue – even if those states have to entertain tax increases.

Arkansas left their gas tax alone, but put on a half-cent sales tax for a decade to fund unmet needs in highway and bridge construction and maintenance.

Six states and the District of Columbia have raised gasoline taxes recently to address the same problem in their states.

Some states are implementing complex variable gas tax rates that are tied to market prices. It’s been a mixed bag, but the overall themes in these states have been remarkably like Mississippi’s woes.

Mississippi has about 4,700 miles of highways in dire need of repair at an estimated current cost of nearly $1 billion, according to Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall. One of the biggest public policy and economic misconceptions in Mississippi is the notion that as gas prices have skyrocketed, state gas tax revenues have risen along with them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Mississippi’s 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax (CPG) is a flat tax. When we paid $1 a gallon for gas, the tax was 18.4 CPG. When we pay $3.60 per gallon at the pump, the state tax is still 18.4 CPG. The only way the state takes in more revenue in gas taxes is for the volume of gas consumed to increase.

The state’s 18.4 CPG gas tax was last raised in 1987. According to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Mississippi’s flat gas tax isn’t keeping pace with the inflation of rising highway construction and maintenance costs and with the modern fuel economy improvements in today’s vehicles. Nationally, state gasoline taxes average 23.5 CPG but vary substantially.

In 2012, a national report found that Mississippi has an estimated $30 billion in highway and bridge needs between 2008 and 2035 but that the state’s current gas tax structure would only generate $15.3 billion.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the national average federal/state tax on gasoline is 41.9 CPG. The federal tax on gasoline is 18.4 CPG. The national average state gasoline excise tax is 23.5 CPG. In Mississippi, drivers pay total federal and state taxes of 37.2 cents per gallon of gasoline and 43.2 cents per gallon of diesel. Mississippi’s excise tax totals 18.4 CPG on gasoline and diesel, with 0.4 cents going to an environmental protection fee. In coastal Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, there is an additional 3 CPG seawall tax.

Mississippi’s gas tax is lower than Alabama (19 cents per gallon, but the state allows local option taxes in addition), Arkansas (21.80 CPG), Louisiana (20 CPG), or Tennessee (21.40 CPG). The question should be whether Mississippi roads and bridges are in better shape that the transportation infrastructure in those surrounding states?

But just getting a Mississippi Department of Transportation budget approved was tough this session as the Senate and House skirmished until after the regular session adjourned before the Senate prevailed in getting a $927 million MDOT budget adopted in a special session.

Look for the gas tax hike push to languish for some time. After all, 2015 is a statewide election year.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com. Salter is the chief spokesman for Mississippi State University.

  • Watcher

    I’m tired of MDOT & their lobby of Road Construction Companies continually harping on raising our gas taxes. If money is so scarce for them, why do they continually GIVE AWAY money (our tax dollars) in the form of grants? MDOT has a program called TAP (Transportation Alternative Program) that does nothing but GIVE AWAY money. Just in the past few weeks, they offered a $500,000 “grant” of our tax dollars to the City of Tupelo to fix the airport runway to meet the requirements of a private business. Also in the past few months, they have also “granted” our tax dollars to the City of Tupelo to build a sidewalk on North Gloster from Green St. to the Mall area. These are just two projects that I know of in this area. There is no telling how much of this “give away” is going on across the state. I live outside of Tupelo. What did I receive for this give away of my tax dollar? NOTHING!!! When times are hard, individuals & businesses normally cut costs & certainly don’t give away money for pet projects. MDOT needs to do the same. QUIT giving away our tax dollars & spend it where it is actually required like road repairs.