Speaker suggests ‘impartial’ study of state’s roads

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Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

The bridge over the Coldwater River in Tate County was closed by MDOT last March due to its high degree of decay.

Mississippi’s roads and bridges need work, but exactly how many are in a disrepair and how much money would be necessary to fix them is uncertain, House Speaker Philip Gunn said Tuesday.

Gunn said he is open to bringing in an outside entity to assess the condition of the state’s roads and bridges, similar to when the Legislature hired EdBuild to conduct a study on the state’s school funding formula.

“I believe we need to find an impartial third party,” Gunn told reporters.

A report detailing how many of the roads and bridges are inefficient with estimates of how many years left before others become unsafe or inadequate would allow the state to begin financial planning for scheduled maintenance over the years, he said.

Earlier this month, the Mississippi Department of Transportation announced an 8-year plan to address the state’s crumbling infrastructure, seeking an additional $400 million in funding to address the needs.

Earlier this session, Gunn noted that a highway program would require more tax revenue and the majority of the Legislature was elected running on a position of lowering taxes, not raising them.

Gunn, R-Clinton, said he has met with Department of Transportation officials and asked them to look into their budget and figure out if there is $50 million in savings the department can contribute.

Additional funds could come from bonds or federal dollars, as President Donald Trump has alluded to a future infrastructure spending plan, the speaker noted.

Another resource might be a bill that would require businesses lacking a physical presence in Mississippi that have more than $250,000 in sales to collect state sales tax from customers. House Bill 480 was sent to the Senate on Feb. 7 for action.

Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia described the bill as a user fee on out-out-state Internet businesses that would generate between $50 million and $150 million per year. Provisions in the bill call for 70 percent of the funds to be used for roads and bridges.

Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

Gunn noted a Mississippi Economic Council study released in 2015, which stated $375 million from the Legislature for bridge and pavement work could create about $4,000 new direct and indirect jobs in the construction industry. If those funds were provided, they would also generate an additional local and state tax revenue of $15 million annually and overall economic benefit of more than $440 million annually, the report said.

“My hope is that we can eventually arrive at a comfortable decision as to exactly what is the need,” Gunn said. “I do think the need is at least $100 million.”