This is the third in a series of three articles about finding solutions to fund improvements to state roads.
Legislators who traveled the state this summer reviewing bridge and highway needs say they are focused on ensuring that wasteful spending isn’t holding back highway repairs.
“As a representative of the people here in DeSoto county, I needed to understand what the need was. The second thing is how we got to this point,” said Rep. Dana Criswell, R-DeSoto County.
“(The third is) making sure (the Transportation Department) is spending our money wisely,” Criswell said. “That’s not an accusation, but me upholding my responsibility as a representative. Your’re spending taxpayer money. We have to make sure you are doing it wisely.”
A number of the state representatives contacted by Mississippi Today expressed concern about the Transportation Department being wasteful with state funds. The concerns were raised despite the agency’s downsizing, including decreasing the number of vehicles in the department’s fleet by 330 vehicles and laying off 44 employees from the Right of Way division.
For many, the idea of purging suspected wasteful spending was the first method of providing additional funding for the agency.
“I would look at it as a person that runs a business,” Rep. Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica, said. “If you can cut back on something to pay for something else. I would do that.”
“If there is waste somewhere, I’d want to get that waste out and put it towards roads,” Burnett said. “The roads and bridges are vital to the economy. We may have to raise fees, taxes, gas, or something, but it has to get done.”
The trips were led by Rep. Charles Busby, R-Jackson County, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Starting in July, Busby took committee members along with highway department officials to look at highway and bridge needs. The sessions included two days of visiting locations in each of the three state highway commission districts. The Department of Transportation declined Mississippi Today’s request to accompany the legislators on these trips.
“I thought it would be good for at least the transportation committee to have this knowledge so that when we are considering something before us, like how more and more people are pushing for greater spending on our infrastructure, I want them to be able to make the most informed decision possible,” Busby said.
A number of the committee members expressed to Mississippi Today concerns about the difficulty of balancing the economic importance of infrastructure and their reluctance to support either a new tax or a tax increase to meet transportation funding needs.
With construction cost increases and a funding formula that has had little revision since 1987, the Transportation Department has had to switch from adding capacity to the highways in the state’s high growth areas to maintenance work on the highway infrastructure already in place.
“One of the biggest things is we have moved away from building so many new roads,” Rep. Robert Foster, R-DeSoto, said, “and we are using the majority of our money to maintain what we have existing.”
“Of course there is still going to be growth in certain areas that we’ll need to expand highways and add capacity, but now we’ve got to shift, in my opinion, our efforts from building new capacity to a majority of our budget going to maintaining what we have,” Foster said.
The Transportation Department has “been forced to do that. They’re budget has not really grown, and now that all these roads and bridges have started needing to be replaced, updated, and maintained, they’ve been forced to use a portion of their budget to go towards maintenance,” Foster said. “That’s good. That’s a natural thing that had to take place.”
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Madison, said he looked to a “comprehensive” approach to changing the tax system as a potential source of highway funding: “Infrastructure is critical for the states, and frankly, it is about funding priority. Where do we find deficiencies? Where is the money being spent to address the most need.”
Others, like Rep. Oscar Denton, D-Warren County, suggested that even after culling some state agency spending, the money to cover the state’s roads and bridges might not be there and the people of the state need to know that.
“I think the public needs to know that their tax money keeps the bridges and roads paved,” Denton said. “That’s what keeps things going. Where else will the state get money from other than taxes and fees. I think the public needs to recognize that.”
Busby noted that special legislative committees looking at state spending have been looking at the Transportation Department spending.
“I think they’re doing a pretty good job. In any organizations, there is room from improvement,” he said.” We just want to make sure we are making those improvements.”
The session with legislators “further illustrated that any incremental efficiency gains we get out of (Transportation Department) will be insufficient to meet the needs of our crumbling infrastructure,” Busby said. “I just don’t see a way other than transferring revenue from somewhere else or creating new revenue. I think we will find efficiencies but i don’t think we will find what we need.”
Even Democrats who face a Republican supermajority in the House found cause for hope during the trips.
“Going on these trips,” said Rep. John Faulkner, D-Holly Springs, “I think it made a big difference. We started to have dialogue that day. Republicans and Democrats talking. It’s not going to make a difference if you’re black or white, Republican or Democrat, if that bridge falls it makes no difference.”
“Starting dialogue that day, it got me hopeful that coming in next session we will be able to take a look that day and have some real honest dialogue to find the money to get this taken care of,” Faulkner said.