Roads and bridge funding gets a new hearing

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Road and bridge funding will get an early look this week when a key legislative committee meets to discuss ways to raise about $330 million to address the state’s failing infrastructure.

The Senate Transportation Committee on Monday announced two days of hearings, which will include testimony from the state departments of Transportation and State Aid, the state chamber of commerce and county supervisors.

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State Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland

Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, who chairs the committee, said the hearings on Thursday and Friday will allow state officials to update lawmakers on the condition of infrastructure in Mississippi.

Several reports commissioned in recent years have concluded that the state needs about $300 million to $400 million for infrastructure, but Simmons believes the reports do not go far enough in addressing “ways and means” — which typically refers to taxation issues — of paying for the repairs.

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, an increase of 400 percent. The Transportation Department’s funding has remained relatively steady over the same time period, at around $1 billion per year.

Although consensus seems to exist to do something about the problem, the top leaders in the Senate and House are at an impasse on how to pay for it all. The stalemate even resulted in lawmakers’ failure to pass an operating budget for the Transportation Department, which forced Gov. Phil Bryant to call a special session in early June.

Among the proposals that met defeat were establishing a state lottery and charging Mississippians a sales tax when they shop online. Both Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn have been cool to the idea of a lottery; Reeves adamantly opposes online sales taxes, which he sees as a tax hike.

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

The Mississippi Economic Council has also offered several suggestions for raising extra highway funds, including raising the current 18 cents per gallon gas tax — which is several cents lower per gallon than neighboring states — charging an extra $10 on the annual license tag renewals and a general sales tax increase.

Simmons understands the uphill fight to inject new cash into roads and bridges.

“We know that there is opposition, but we also know there is a need. We know we’re looking at a crisis,” he said.