Improvements to the state highway system were a key priority for state business leaders heading into the 2016 legislative session.
But their pleas came to naught.
Scott Waller, executive vice president and Chief Operating Officer of the Mississippi Economic Council, said that the MEC wanted infrastructure on everyone’s minds as the legislative session began.
“The economic benefit of the (1987) system speaks for itself,” Waller said of the last major highway program passed by state legislators.
“Look at the Golden Triangle, Tupelo, and Gulfport — Look at the impact that Nissan has had on central Mississippi,” Waller said. ” In order to expand that economic opportunity across the state, there has to be a statewide system.”
In its campaign at the Capitol, the MEC argued that improving infrastructure would grow the economy, keep drivers safe, and avoid unnecessary costs on travelers whose vehicles were damaged by the roads.
With the guidance of research by Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi, the MEC recommended that the legislature raise the appropriation to MDOT by $375 million, with $300 million going to state roads and bridges and the remainder reserved for local roads.
“Even if it costs a little bit today,” Waller said, “it will save them a lot in the future. We have to make sure we have a road system that grows the economy and protects our citizens.”
But the pleas for improvements fell short. While proponents of additional funding for highways were able to keep a skeleton bill alive that could have proved a vehicle for larger appropriations, no bill ever made it to either chamber floor for a vote.
MEC offered several suggestions for funding the additional highway funds, including a gas tax increase, an extra $10 on the annual license tag fee and a general sales tax increase. A tax increase was a non-starter, legislative leaders said.
Rep. Charles Busby (R-Pascagoula), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he is in favor of an increase to MDOT’s budget.
“I think it is pretty mad to think that a state agency can operate on the same budget is working with in 1987,” Busby said.
In an ideal world where funding needs are met, the MDOT would focus on consistent maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges.
“Not only does maintenance and preservation make for better driving but it is cost effective,” said Morgan Miller, a public information officer at MDOT.
According to a study by the National Center for Pavement Preservation, maintenance costs can multiply to anywhere from six to fourteen times what it would have cost if preservation work had been done within fifteen years of a road’s construction.
Almost 30 percent of MDOT’s budget is dependent on the state fuel tax.
In 1987, the legislature passed the Four-Lane Highway Program. It overhauled infrastructure funding by readjusting the fuel tax rate so that MDOT got 13 cents of the 18.4 cents charged per gallon of gasoline and diesel. The program’s mission was to build an expected 1,077 miles of four-lane highway to meet the state needs and encourage economic growth.
What might have been a boon for infrastructure funding in the late ‘80s, is proving to be too little for too long.
In 1987, when the state fuel tax was last adjusted, the cost of asphalt pavement was $26.80 per ton. In 2015, that same ton of asphalt cost the state $86.23, a 222 percent increase in 28 years.
To make matters worse, the temporary lows in gas prices and rise of more fuel efficient cars have meant less revenue from fuel bought in Mississippi.
Busby and Rep. Trey Lamar (R-Lafayette, Tate) proposed a tax reform package during the session. Unfortunately, many of the freshmen legislators had signed commitments to vote against new taxes.
With much of committee leadership in the House changing hands, Busby said that he did not have the time to gain enough traction to get infrastructure funding the traction it needed.
“We need to do what is fiscally responsible. Our infrastructure is a core responsibility of our government,” Busby said. “How are we going to leave here not having funded something that we all agree is a core responsibility of government.”
Looking forward to the session in 2017, Busy said that he is working on a plan for comprehensive tax reform that will help fund the state’s infrastructure system.
“The longer we allow our infrastructure to degrade,” Busby said, “the more expensive it will be to fix in the end. If we don’t do something, we will find ourselves in a hole that we can’t dig ourselves out of.”