The Mississippi Economic Council voiced support Wednesday for House Speaker Philip Gunn’s suggestion of an impartial study to develop a long-term plan for addressing the state’s road and bridge needs.
“Speaker Philip Gunn has offered a public policy route that makes sense. Two lanes running in the same direction at the same time – and both get us there,” MEC president Blake Wilson said in a statement.
“Lane 1 is HB 480 – which puts internet sales tax collections toward fixing roads and bridges – brings immediate results,” Wilson noted.
“Lane 2 is an impartial study – to look at all the work that has been done – MEC, PEER, the MS Department of Transportation, as well as perhaps some new approaches not yet discovered – focuses on assuring that the long-range plan is both operationally and fiscally sound,” Wilson’s statement said.
“This makes sense,” Wilson’s statement continued, “and we appreciate the Speaker’s approach. … The key here is progress – in the same direction – on a common road to success.”
Gunn proposed the third-party study on transportation needs to reporters on Tuesday, suggesting the state consider hiring an outside consultant to assess road construction needs.
Prior to the 2016 legislative session the MEC proposed a comprehensive roads project that projected a need of an additional $375 million in funding. Recently, the Mississippi Department of Transportation laid out an an overview of state highway needs, suggesting an 8-year plan of action that would require $400 million in additional revenue.
Last summer, Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, the House Transportation Committee chairman, led a series of field trips with legislators across the state to view bridge and road conditions and to assess the need for repairs. Prior to the 2017 legislative session, Busby said that just behind education, infrastructure was going to be a priority for the state.
But over the course of the session, Busby said he has seen that the body is not as convinced as he is of what exactly is needed.
“I’ve immersed myself in it over the last year. I don’t need any additional study, but I’m one vote,” Busby said. “I’ve got to get 73 of my closest colleagues to go along with me if that’s what we are going to do.”
“They (fellow legislators) need an unbiased study of how MDOT is operating roads and bridges, how much extra money it’s really going to take to get ahead of this problem. They don’t think that question has been adequately answered,” Busby observed.
MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath said that one of the reasons for the broad push — press conferences by all three state Transportation commissioners in each of their districts — for the department’s 8-year plan was to show people the need.
“We hear from people that our roads aren’t that bad. Our bridges aren’t that bad,” McGrath said. “So we gave them maps to show the problems. Point to the bridges and roads that need work.”
“I think we are going to try something,” Busby said of the potential for addressing transportation needs.
“The estimates on (potential revenue from HB) 480 are anywhere from 30 million to 100 million to 120 million, so you end up somewhere in the middle there, you’ve got 70 or 80 million dollars that you could put towards roads and bridges,” he said. “And another 60 million in a bond bill, then you are making some progress.”
The House bill proposes to spend the funds raised through the sales tax on Internet purchases for road construction, with 70 percent of the revenue from the new sales tax going to the state Transportation Department, 15 percent to counties and 15 percent to municipalities.
“I’m not sure what (Gunn) is hoping to get out of the study,” McGrath said, “but we are ready to do whatever we can to be compliant.”
In recent weeks, Gunn, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant have all mentioned the need for the state to address its infrastructure issues.