The Mississippi Department of Transportation unveiled an 8-year plan to address the state’s crumbling infrastructure — but will need $400 million more in funding to accomplish it.
Central District Commissioner Dick Hall, speaking at a press conference in Jackson called to announce the plan, said that at current funding levels, the state is struggling to maintain the infrastructure it has.
“I’m here today to announce an 8-year plan to replace the deficient bridges, repave the fractured highways, add the needed additional lanes and provide up to date safety features for the system,” Hall said.
“Between the great things we cannot do and small things we will not do, the danger is that we will do nothing,” Hall said. “Well 30 years ago, we did something,”
Referencing the AHEAD program created then, Hall said, “As a result 4-lane highways were constructed in areas in this state that only dreamed of them.”
“As a member of that Legislature, I recall that we failed to provide for maintaining this multi-billion dollar investment. This lack of funding is leading to the crumbling of the state’s roads and bridges,” Hall said.
And Hall noted: “This deterioration of the highways is most noticeable along rural routes. the very area we set out thirty years ago to help.”
Legislators have struggled to find funds to address highway issues in recent years despite a growing clamor from state businesses and residents for action.
Earlier this session, House Speaker Philip Gunn noted that a highway program would require more taxes and the majority of the Legislature was elected running on a position of lowering taxes, not raising them.
As Mississippi Today reported, this has been a point the department has made since the session began. When state funds are not met, the Interstate and other federal highways have access to avenues of funding that rural highways don’t.
The MDOT plan announced Thursday includes 550 projects spread out across the state. The agency provided a handy list noting projects by county.
At an October event hosted by Mississippi Today, Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert said MDOT will be forced to end all projects aimed at expanding highway capacity after 2018 unless additional funding sources are developed.
In the past three there have been three major studies on the Department of Transportation’s needs.
In 2014, the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review submitted their findings from a study commissioned by the Mississippi Legislature. The study found that the department had room to improve on accountability and transparency, and offered recommendations that included posting a searchable version of their five year plan online (which they did) and implementing a personnel study (which they also did).
In 2015, the Mississippi Economic Council published its own study on the impact transportation infrastructure could have on the economy. It found that if the legislature could arrange for an additional $375 million for bridge and pavement work, approximately 4,000 new direct and indirect jobs in the construction industry would be created, an additional local and state tax revenue of $15 million annually and overall economic benefit of more than $440 million annually.
The catch was that the additional funding would diminish in its return the longer the Legislature waited to act. 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.
We provided a number of options,” said Scott Waller, MEC’s senior vice president for public affairs,. “Waiting was not one of those options. The longer we wait — if we are forced to wait — the more it will cost the taxpayer. It seems to me like the conservative thing to do is put forward the investment into our infrastructure.”
As if two didn’t drive the point home, the legislature spent the fall evaluating MDOT’s budget and personnel.
“I don’t think we found any smoking guns. I don’t think we found a high level of inefficiency,” said Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, the chairman of the House’s Transportation Committee. “I think we can gain some efficiencies out of there, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough to fix our problem.”
The deadline for committee action on appropriations and revenue bills is Feb. 22.
“This is something that is not going to get any better. The cost goes up every single day,” Hall said. “We’re having to talk about rebuilding things rather than just repaving them.
“I’ll give you an example — I didn’t mean to get into this — but take the City of Jackson’s streets,” Hall said. “That’s where they are. It’s gone so far that they will have to be rebuilt. And that’s what we are starting to run into now with our state highways. And I certainly don’t want them to end up starting to look like the City of Jackson’s streets.”