PEER:Highways not being built for entire state’s needs

Mississippi’s highways have not been built lately with statewide needs in mind, but by regional priorities that skew and sap statewide goals, a state watchdog agency reports. It also predicts that, given the state’s inadequate funding, the Vision 21 highway program the Legislature mandated in 2002 – including Highways 6, 15 and 25 in Northeast Mississippi – will never be achieved by the Mississippi Department of Transportation. “Vision 21 won’t be successful until we get MDOT, the Legislature and the business community working together,” said state Rep. Greg Ward of Ripley, who asked for the investigation by the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, commonly known as PEER. He said he wanted to know if MDOT’s construction and maintenance plans met what state law requires: objective planning based on statewide needs, not among the six regional districts. PEER’s report, published in late January, states that at the current funding rate, Vision 21 will take 108 years to complete. Vision 21’s goals – to upgrade and build highways – “may very well be beyond prudent reach” of the state and MDOT, the 92-page report assesses. “PEER believes that in selecting and funding highway construction projects, the commission and MDOT should consider the entirety of transportation needs for the state,” the report states. Chiefly, the barriers to success are numerous: n Mississippi does not dedicate enough money to achieve its highway goals. n MDOT, until recently, was not designating priority projects based on statewide needs. n Other projects, mandated by federal earmarks or economic development needs, sap existing resources and complicate scheduled plans. n A statewide, grassroots groundswell for better transportation has yet to develop. “The 1987 program never would have materialized without that business group – AHEAD – that made it succeed,” Ward told the Daily Journal on Tuesday, referring to the aggressive statewide plan that four-laned U.S. Highways 78 and 45. Rep. Harvey Moss of Corinth, PEER’s chairman, sees the Vision 21 problems in much the same way. “We had hoped it would be like the 1987 program, which worked,” Moss said. “The idea that it will take 108 years to complete – that’s just unacceptable.” MDOT Executive Director Larry “Butch” Brown, who directs the $1.25 billion agency, and Northern Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor of Holly Springs did not return Daily Journal phone calls for their reaction to the PEER report. PEER notes that since it began to investigate MDOT’s planning process, the three-man Transportation Commission agreed to show in its meeting minutes why construction priorities were changed. Rep. Warner McBride of Courtland, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, agrees, saying MDOT has heard PEER’s cries. “I am certain the PEER report has gotten their attention refocused,” he said Tuesday. “Maybe we all got complacent. “Now it is up to us in the Legislature and the public to help keep their attention refocused.” State law requires that refocus. In 1981, House Bill 1383 directed the state’s Transportation Commission and Department of Transportation to spend construction funds based on the state needs as a whole, not by geography. That hasn’t changed, even as the Legislature mandated specific priorities in 1987 and later with Vision 21. From Fiscal Years 2007 through 2009, more than $1 billion has been budgeted for roadway construction in the state’s six transportation districts. (The District 4 designation is no longer used because it referred to the MDOT headquarters for accounting purposes.) PEER’s report shows Districts 6 and 7 in south and central Mississippi each got nearly one-quarter of the funding, while Northeast Mississippi’s District 1 was third in funding with about a fifth, based on each district’s percentage of roadway traffic – a fragmented system PEER says limits MDOT’s effectiveness to address statewide needs. But in a letter to PEER, Brown defended the regional distribution of money for overlay projects among the six districts “to provide an equitable and fiscally sound approach to maintain the state’s aging transportation system.” As for Vision 21, spending has been slow, although MDOT has met its legislative mandate to set aside $200 million a year for the program. Since Fiscal Year 2006, which began in July 2005, MDOT has set aside almost $1.2 billion for Vision 21 but has spent only about $253 million – about 21 percent – for Vision 21 projects. Officials defend the minimal spending by saying it takes years and scores of steps before any dirt gets turned for new highway projects. As for funding deficiencies, Ward says he believes MDOT got off track and “seems never to have recovered” from the the state’s economic hard times in 2004, when the agency was stripped of some $300 million to shore up the state budget. But still, Ward notes from the PEER report, even though MDOT developed a highway construction priority list, it wasn’t followed and money was funded to the districts for work that may or may not have been a statewide need. Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

Patsy Brumfield/Daily Journal