MEC panel: Take infrastructure seriously

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Zachary Oren Smith

Attendees gather at the MECs Celebrate Mississippi program on Thursday.

The state’s voice for business — the Mississippi Economic Council — used part of its annual meeting Thursday in Jackson to emphasize again its support for improvements to the state roads and bridges.

A panel discussion on infrastructure pointed towards a special legislative session to address Department of Transportation funding that is a little more than a month away.

The takeaway from Thursday’s session as part of the Mississippi Celebration program at the Jackson Convention Center was an underscoring of the multilayered impact that increased transportation funding could have on the state.

Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

Paula Dowell discusses spin off effects that infrastructure investments can have on the job market.

“What I have found time and time again is that you are better off making the investment (in infrastructure),” Paula Dowell, Ph.D., the principal and director of Cambridge Systematics, Inc., said. Dowell pointed to a study her research group conducted on I-95 in North Carolina.

“It’s basically the same interstate that it was the day it was built fifty years ago,” Dowell said. She likes to look at this study because it shows how long term freezes on maintenance and investment in infrastructure can compound costs over time.

“What we found is that no matter how we pay for it, you were better off making the investment than not making the investment,” Dowell said. “Because we all realize that whenever you raise taxes, whenever you raise fees, there is going to be a negative economic implication to that, but you have to balance the trade off, the impact of the taxes versus the impact of the investment being made.”

Mike McCormick of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation said that the sector he represents depends on investments in the state’s infrastructure plan:

“There’s an old saying that farming is the only occupation that buys and retails, sells and wholesales, and drives the highways both ways,” McCormick said. “We don’t have the opportunity to pass along the cost to anybody else.”

“Farmers have to eat that cost,” McCormick said. “Again I’ve talked about how razor thin the profit margins are and with the farming industry it’s pretty hard to open a farm these days.”

On their Roads Matter website, the MEC points to the state’s roads as a “significant contributing factor” for why Mississippi has been able to recruit large employers. The panel discussed this relationship between jobs and infrastructure.

“Yes, we do expect a certain degree of job creation due to construction,” Dowell said. “But once businesses start to expand and locate there then they are hiring construction (workers) as well. And then there are the employee jobs.”

Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

Scott Waller of the MEC moderates a panel on the economics of transportation infrastructure.

“I think we are always thinking about how we can create jobs and maintain consistent jobs,” Scott Waller, executive vice president and COO of MEC, said. “The numbers you had were pretty staggering I think you can see what’s happening with the unemployment rate going down. We know it’s not just cost of the roads and construction. It goes far beyond that.”

With a big question looming over whether the Mississippi Department of Transportation will receive more funding than last year during the special session, the panel took the long term vision of where investment could go.

“We tend to focus not just on the construction of the transportation project and those jobs,” Dowell said. “But it’s really about the long term, lasting economic growth that we can have from this type of investment.”

“With all of what we have looked at in the studies we have done, one thing continues to stand out to us is that this is an investment and will pay great dividends,” Waller said. “It will help grow Mississippi’s economy and that’s the reason without a doubt all of us — the MEC, businesses across the state — understand the importance.”