MDOT official: Latest roads plan relies on ‘unstable’ funding source

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 Dick Hall

An infrastructure plan Senate leaders said could generate more than $1 billion using a mix of grants, loans and existing revenue streams will not raise enough cash to meet all of Mississippi’s highway and infrastructure needs, said a top transportation official.

The infrastructure package, also known as the BRIDGE Act, would rely on a combination of agency budget cuts and borrowing, including from the state’s so-called rainy day fund.

Dick Hall, chairman of the Mississippi Transportation Commission, on Monday said the latest edition of the infrastructure-funding plan would not be sufficient or dependable enough to use unless it produces a new source of revenue.

Much of the plan’s funding depends on the amount of cash deposited in the state’s Working Cash-Stabilization Fund, commonly called the rainy day fund. When crafting the yearly budget, lawmakers aim to set aside 2 percent of the budget for emergencies. 

Hall said relying on this fund is too “unstable” to use for maintaining roads and infrastructure, adding that the Legislature has had to use the state’s Rainy Day Fund for the past three fiscal years just to balance the state budget.

“There’s no reason to think it won’t be (spent for that purpose) in the future until our economy and our revenue get a whole lot better than it is,” Hall said in his office on Monday. “… You can’t run an operation like the Mississippi Department of Transportation on what might become available.”

Even if the department received $350 million to $400 million more per year, the amount Hall said is needed just to its maintain the state’s roads and bridges, it would still take years to fix the department’s backlog of highway needs.

Hall, who represents the commission’s central district, said this includes nearly 1,000 bridges that need serious repair or total reconstruction. This could cost about $1.5 billion, while the department would need about $1 billion to repair or replace existing highways.

Since road projects can take five or six years to complete, it is crucial to make sure the department has a predictable, steady source of income, Hall said.

That can only happen by bringing in new money, Hall said. He strongly suggested increasing the state’s fuel tax, just as he has in previous years.

“Having gone through this myself in 1987 as a member of the Legislature, it surprises me that by now, the solution has not evolved,” Hall said. “I don’t know how bad it has to get … There’s going to be a bridge give-way sooner or later that’s going to cause a serious accident. I hope it doesn’t take human life, but if something is not done, it’s going to happen.”  

Mississippi bridges have caved in the past. Hall said “we’ve just been lucky” those incidents had not resulted in a death.

The House last week approved its version of the plan previously passed in the Senate that would set aside 1 percent of the general fund revenue estimate for each fiscal year over the next five years, or about $60 million a year, in a fund administered by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

The House’s plan would also set aside auto tag fee diversions and some revenue from casino taxes into the fund, and assemble a study committee to facilitate public and private partnerships for infrastructure development.

The bill, which would take effect July 1, heads to the Senate which could approve the House changes or send it to a joint conference committee.

The Senate’s version of the plan, which they approved last month, would have stripped much of MDOT’s spending authority and project flexibility, transferring much of the commission’s spending authority to the governor, and formed a board made up of representatives from some of the most powerful special interest groups in the state to make recommendations on which projects should be approved.

At this point, Hall said the department prefers the House version of the bill, but the right solution will require “a difficult political action.”  

“The solution is not going to fall out of the sky,” Hall said. “I don’t want anybody to think if they pass that House bill exactly like it is … that’ll solve the problem we have with highways and bridges in the state of Mississippi. It’s not.”