Roads bill passed by Senate will ‘cripple’ MDOT, commissioner says

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A plan meant to spur road and bridge development would be taking money away from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, two of the department’s top officials said Tuesday.

The Senate on Tuesday approved Senate Bill 3046, also known as the BRIDGE Act, with a vote of 36-14, meeting the bill’s three-fifths vote requirement.

The bill, which Senate leaders claim will redirect $1 billion in spending over the next five years, would force MDOT to spend 95 percent of state funds on existing roads and bridges and prohibit MDOT from purchasing right-of-way properties on its own.

The plan also would take $25 million a year from MDOT’s current budget for the next five years and give that money to a board consisting of trade and special-interest groups, led by the governor.

Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath speaks to news media about Senate Bill 3046 on Tuesday.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation would lose spending flexibility and receive less money under the plan unveiled Monday by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, MDOT executive director Melinda McGrath said Tuesday.

She added that her agency was not consulted about the bill, which is 300 pages long.

Dick Hall, chairman of the Mississippi Transportation Commission, said he was disappointed the commission had no input in the drafting of the roads bill.

“Basically, they’re taking money,” Hall said Tuesday. “We’ve spent the past five to six years trying to convince them of our need of additional monies just to maintain what we’ve got.”

Hall said the department is approximately $300 million to $400 million short every year, and the plan proposes to take $25 million more from the department for each of the next five years.

The proposal has spurred misconceptions about the department and how it is run, McGrath said. For example, she said, requiring the governor’s approval for transportation projects would likely slow the department’s project completion rate.

The bill says MDOT must have the governor’s approval before purchasing rights-of-way and the projects that are approved are expected to be completed within five years.

“Because the process is so long, we’ve got to know four years in advance to even get started to get to the point of buying right-of-way,” McGrath said. “Often a governor changes in four years, so now what does that do to a program?

McGrath said almost every right-of-way purchase the department made in 2017 was for bridge replacements, which are prioritized from “the worst to the best.”

“Even things that seem to be simple, like a bridge replacement, just because of flooding impacts, it can take four to five years to get that from the very beginning, where you start looking at environmental concerns, all the way to letting and construction,” McGrath said.

5 takeaways from Senate infrastructure proposal

The Department of Transportation has been a target of legislative leaders in recent years. During a round of budget hearings in October 2016, when budget writers formed working groups to study the state’s finances, House Speaker Philip Gunn questioned travel expenditures and criticized 900 employees of the transportation agency’s 2,300 workforce as holding “office jobs.”

Gunn and Reeves have frequently called on MDOT to improve efficiency in its spending.

“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 in June 2017.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks at a news conference on Monday joined by Senate Finance committee chairman Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, and Senate Transportation committee chairman Sen. Willie Simmons, D- Cleveland.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, and main author of the bill, said on the Senate floor Tuesday that MDOT spends just $216 million of its $1.1 billion budget on existing roads and bridges.

“There would be no restrictions on federal or special funds they receive,” Fillingane said. “We think it’s fair that 95 percent go to existing infrastructure.”

McGrath said about 91-93 percent of all the department’s funding goes to a function that is directly related to roads and bridges.

“I’m talking about the whole budget of $1.1 billion. They’re talking about the $450 million state funds only,” McGrath said of the bill’s 95 percent spending requirement. “That’s going to be problematic. That’s going to mean program cuts, some services or somebody is going to get caught in that. That’s state money, and it’s got to come out of the state.”

Rogelio Solis, AP

Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall

The plan will “cripple our way of operating,” Hall said. “We’re not going to be able to buy any right-of-way without permission from the next governor. The governor is going to decide where the highways are going to be maintained and where they are going to be built, and they are going to be maintained and built where his buddies are and where his political support is.”

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said, “This bill is nothing more than a vindictive attempt to silence and punish the highway commission.”

“We are not condemning DOT,” said Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, who is chairman of the Transportation Committee and co-author of the bill. “We’ve been working with them the past six years.”

However, McGrath feels differently.

“It just looks like they’re trying to strip the commission of their legislative power without really asking the people what they think,” she said.