In a second day Friday of exploring potential funding to address the state’s failing infrastructure, lawmakers heard yet another bleak outlook from the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
The bottom line, MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath said: State crews cannot keep up with the rate of declining conditions of the state’s roads and bridges under current funding.
MDOT, despite the help of powerful lobbyists and interest groups, has failed for several years to convince the Legislature to fund its stated needs: $400 million more per year — a conservative estimate — to sufficiently address the state’s infrastructure problem.
MDOT’s budget for the current fiscal year, about $1.2 billion, is made up of revenue collected from the state’s 18.4-cent gas tax and federal transportation funds. State Aid Roads received about $175 million in general funds for the current fiscal year.
Several of the 12 senators in attendance Friday pressed McGrath on basic spending of her department – a line of questioning inspired by legislative leadership, which has spent months going line-by-line through the department’s budget. While other agencies have faced similar action by the Legislature, few have been squeezed as much as MDOT.
For months, legislative leaders have questioned MDOT’s travel expenses, vehicle fleet size, and projects that don’t include repairing roads and bridges. In this year’s legislative session, several efforts to divert more funding to infrastructure improvement caused internal bickering and ultimately failed to move forward.
When similar lines of questioning resurfaced on Friday, McGrath pushed back.
Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, asked McGrath why her department had delayed improving a section of highway in his district. Dozens of projects like the one in Dearing’s district are on hold as others have taken priority with the limited money the department has, McGrath said.
“So we have many deaths there, but we don’t have enough traffic volume for it?” Dearing asked.
“No, it does have the volume. We don’t have enough money,” McGrath replied.
MDOT spends about $225 million per year to service 27,248 miles of pavement, including interstates, four-lane highways and two-lane highways – and McGrath said on Friday that two-lane highways are in the worst shape of the three.
MDOT officials gave this sobering breakdown:
• A mere 116 of the 1,798 miles of interstate roadways that need repair can be addressed annually.
• Only 500 of the 2,244 miles of four-lane roadways are repaired annually.
• Just 1,000 of the 7,534 miles of two-lane highways get attention annually.
McGrath and Carey Webb, who runs State Aid Road Construction, a separate state agency that works more directly on county infrastructure, also specifically addressed bridges.
MDOT is responsible for 3,375 bridges around the state, while State Aid cares for 10,821. A federal audit earlier this year led to tougher inspections that closed several county wood-beam bridges around the state. Pictures of many of those bridges, showing completely missing or broken support beams and sagging surfaces, were provided to lawmakers on Friday.
By the end of the two-hour panel, just seven of the 12 senators who were there at the beginning remained in the room. At least two staff members of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves were present, as well as at least one staff member of House Speaker Philip Gunn.
“We need additional resources to take care of this problem,” said Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, chairman of the Senate Transportation committee. “It’s important that we think seriously about our responsibility and work towards a solution that will give us the revenue we need to take care of our failure to fulfill (that responsibility).”
“We’ve seen the roads and bridges – not only does it impact commerce, but it impacts safety,” Simmons said.