From ‘good’ to ‘very poor’ is a short trip on Mississippi highways

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Mississippi Today

Highway 473 in Hinds County

If funding levels for the Mississippi Department of Transportation do not increase, 13,520 miles of the 30,000 highway miles that MDOT maintains could be in very poor condition within five years, a Mississippi Today analysis found.

Over the past five years, the number of roads that the state transportation agency determined to be in very poor condition has grown from 855 miles in 2012 to 3,400 miles in 2017. That’s an increase of 400 percent.

The transportation department’s funding has remained relatively steady over the same time period, at around $1 billion.

“What that says, at our current level of funding, we will have more of our roads that are in good condition transition into the very poor conditioned state,” said MDOT executive director Melinda McGrath. “When you think about how much it costs to do the type of work we do, it doesn’t go very far.”

During the 2017 legislative session, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and the Mississippi Economic Council lobbied for a bill calling for some $40 million collected from people who voluntarily pay taxes on online purchases to be put toward repairs for roads and bridges.

Rep. Cory Wilson

Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director, Melinda McGrath reviews the department’s budget with Rep. Cory Wilson, R-Madison, left, and Rep. Charles Busby, R-Jackson County.

That proposal would have also authorized $50 million in bonds for local governments to use for infrastructure and require the Mississippi Department of Transportation to spend more of its budget on improvement projects.

The passed in the House of Representatives but not the Senate.

The maintenance challenge

At the current funding rate, all of Mississippi’s 45 percent of state-owned roads could be in very poor condition in five years.

MDOT was one of two government agencies that had to wait until the June special legislative session to find out funding levels for fiscal year 2018. The Legislature ultimately appropriated $1.2 billion for the Department of Transportation.

That sum doesn’t allow for construction of new roads, and may not be enough to merely maintain the state’s existing infrastructure.

“We started about five years ago shifting (away from) building new capacity projects and new roadways to maintaining our existing highways and bridges,” McGrath said. “So this year (will) be a continuation of that. We will be doing paving, bridge repairs, bridge replacement and, then, we are only reconstructing sections of roadways that are falling apart.”

McGrath defined a road in a “good conditioned state” as one with good striping and a

smooth surface without many cracks.

MDOT

Melinda McGrath, executive director, Mississippi Department of Transportation

With MDOT’s current level of funding, “good” roads typically aren’t resurfaced once they start showing cracks. But by the time a road reaches a “very poor conditioned state” the cost to repair the roadway can increase cost anywhere from six to 14 times the original repair amount, according to McGrath. MDOT is left to perform short-term fixes, such as filling potholes.

According to a fact sheet published in 2017, maintenance and construction makes up 88 percent of the department’s total budget.

The department spends 20 percent of its maintenance and construction budget on routine maintenance and 53 percent for infrastructure improvements.

It spent $58.6 million on routine maintenance in fiscal year 2016 in all 82 counties, at an average cost of $5,127.99 per mile, according to the department’s latest publicly available annual report from fiscal year 2016.

The remaining 12 percent goes towards administration, enforcement, debts, equipment and facilities, etc. according to an MDOT fact sheet.

“We go out there and we do pothole patching, but the rain still gets in around those pothole edges, and then they pop back out and the hole becomes larger,” McGrath said. “So it’s kind of a never-ending battle when the road gets really bad.”

The remainder of the budget is spent on administration, enforcement, debts, equipment and facilities and other expenses.

A stark economic outlook

It’s not only the MDOT budget that is affected by the 3,400 miles of roads in poor condition. According to infrastructurereportcard.org, it costs Mississippi’s drivers $705 per year in car repairs, and the condition of the state’s roads could deter potential business investors from considering Mississippi.

In 2016, the Mississippi Economic Council published a study recommending that the Legislature appropriate an additional $375 million for MDOT, with $300 million going towards infrastructure improvements. 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.

“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,” Scott Waller, then-executive vice president and COO of the Mississippi Economic Council, said on a panel in April.

Waller, who is now interim CEO of the council, added: “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.”

McGrath reinforced the long-term importance of Mississippi’s road conditions.

“When large companies are looking for a state to relocate to, one of their first questions pertains to the road net. How are we going to get our goods into the factory, and once we manufacture the goods, how are we going to get them out? And so they want an assurance that they’re going to have four-lane connectivity and that those roads are kept up,” McGrath said.

“And if you look, Mississippi’s economy is not growing.”

McGrath reflected on how important the passage of the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program was in stimulating Mississippi’s economy.

The major legislative initiative 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 highways to meet the state needs and encourage economic growth. 

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Years of wear and tear are evident on the support of this bridge on Mississippi Highway 6 near Batesville.

“It created so many new four lanes that enabled companies to come into this state, and what they they liked the most about it is they had good roads that they could get their goods to and from market. If we do not keep our infrastructure up, it will impact our economic development,” McGrath said.

Looking forward, McGrath says the department’s strategy for the 2018 legislative session will be the same as it has been: to explain what the needs are.

In a statement to Mississippi Today, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves acknowledged that he, Gov. Phil Bryant and Gunn often talk about roads and how to improve them. Reeves believe that there is still some room for MDOT to find efficiencies within its budget.

“Any discussions about how MDOT has spent more than $7 billion since I was elected lieutenant governor and spends more than $1 billion annually should include an examination of how funds are spent on both the construction side and the maintenance side,” Reeves said. 

McGrath agrees that there probably are some areas in which her department could do better, but that’s not enough.

“Obviously any company, any organization could probably be more efficient in one regard or another,” McGrath said. “However, there’s not enough inefficiency at the department to offset the great need for additional revenue for roads and bridges.

“We’re continuing to explain to the legislators what it takes to maintain the state’s system and trying to get them to understand part of the problem that we’re dealing with now is that the roads are in such bad shapes that it takes a lot more routine maintenance to keep the roads safe, so it takes a lot more of our maintenance employees on the roads patching the potholes, clearing  the ditches to keep the roads as safe as we possibly can,” she said.

AP photo, Rogelio V. Solis

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, advocated passage of an infrastructure plan in the Legislature last session. 

There was an attempt, which Gunn led, to get an infrastructure improvement plan passed during the 2017 session, but coming up with a method to pay for additional funds led to a dispute with Reeves that remained unresolved during the regular legislative session and forced the special session in June. Gunn pitched a local tax option in a seven-point infrastructure funding plan before the special session, but a budget bill setting MDOT’s fiscal year 2018 budget was the only thing passed.

Even though President Donald Trump has made infrastructure improvement a priority in his administration, McGrath is not encouraged. The president’s plan is to encourage more corporations to get involved in infrastructure improvements while cutting federal spending.

“Poor states, rural states like we are will not benefit from a public-private partnership,” McGrath said. “If the private side cannot make money, they are not going to invest and foot the bill for that project.

“However, we have seen no guidance on that at all. So, the only thing I could say to that is if we were able to get additional revenue from the federal government, it would definitely be very helpful, because we could rehabilitate more of out roads.”

The road ahead

Although Gunn couldn’t get his proposed plan through the Legislature, the search continues for a source of additional revenue for maintaining Mississippi’s infrastructure .

“The conversations are ongoing regarding infrastructure,” Gunn’s spokesperson, Meg Annison, told Mississippi Today.

Moving forward, Senate Transportation Committee chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, and House Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, both think a hike in what they believe is an outdated gas tax would provide MDOT with extra revenue.

Busby recently spoke to a Rotary Club meeting in Ripley and asked the people in the room whether they could get behind a gas tax increase. The response was overwhelming in favor.

“There wasn’t a person who wasn’t willing to pay a little more on a gallon of gasoline,” Busby said. “Most common-sense people understand that you have a funding mechanism that is 30 years old, and it’s flat. It’s not going to hold.”

Gil Ford Photography

State Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland

Simmons noted that even if the Legislature raised the current 18 cent-per-gallon tax, the level where it’s been since 1987, the tax still would be less than what Tennessee has enacted and what Louisiana is considering.

“That 6 cents would yield, according to the Bureau of Finance, approximately $155 million a year,” Simmons said. “That’s just one small thing we could do and it wouldn’t really hurt the citizens of Mississippi.”

Simmons added that improved roads actually would help Mississippians save money by reducing the amount spent on car repairs.

He thinks lawmakers eventually will come to an agreement on raising the gas tax.

“We, the body, will rise to the occasion,” Simmons said of the Legislature. “I don’t think we’ll continue to kick the can down the road.”

  • charliestogner

    It takes no effort at all to note the waste in highway department operations, from four or so truck, 6 or more workers watching one with a BobCat clearing right of way, to the most senseless expenditure of funds on the I-55 right of way clearing near Hazlehurst.

    Before they raise gas taxes or get any additional funds from any source I suggest an ‘ad hoc’ committee composed of common sense people from various walks of life do a very serious, in-depth, review of the department’s management practices and see how much waste can be eliminated.

    It’s horrific.