Bridge repairs have recently begun on Meadow Road after years of closure. Meadow Road runs west and east between Hanging Moss Road and Highland Drive in Jackson, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Northern District Transportation Commissioner John Caldwell postponed the disbursement of $100 million to cities and counties for emergency road and bridge needs Tuesday saying he wanted more details on how the funds were being divvied.

Caldwell said he had told Mississippi Department of Transportation staff he wanted data on how the projects were selected before voting on them. Because he said he did not have that information, he voted against approving the list of projects Tuesday at the monthly Transportation Commission meeting.

The other two commissioners – Tom King of the Southern District and Willie Simmons of the Central District – voted to approve the funds, but the law creating the Emergency Road and Bridge Fund in a 2018 special session mandated a unanimous vote of the commission to spend the money.

“We will get it worked out,” Caldwell said after the meeting. “I asked them (staff members) not to put it on the agenda if they did not have the data. I did not think they were.”

The Legislature appropriated $100 million for the fund during the 2022 session. The commission was voting Tuesday in an attempt to disburse the funds before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

“We told them in April not to put this out at the last minute,” Caldwell said. He said the hoped to have the list of projects finalized by early June so that it could presented to the Mississippi Municipal League and the Supervisors Association during their annual conferences and then the commission could vote on it at the Tuesday meeting.

The Legislature created the Emergency Road and Bridge Fund in a 2018 special session focused on fixing the state’s crumbling infrastructure, and helping local governments that were facing widespread emergency bridge closures because of disrepair.

In earlier rounds of funding for the program, MDOT was able to use some of the money — about a third — on state projects. But in this year’s session the Legislature, flush with money, provided more direct funds to MDOT and decreed that the entire $100 million it allocated to the emergency fund go only to county and city projects.

The Emergency Road and Bridge Fund has an advisory board, but the three-member elected state Transportation Commission must officially – and unanimously – sign off on projects. MDOT staff vets and analyzes the projects and makes efforts to spread them evenly through the three state transportation districts.

Department of Transportation Executive Director Brad White, who reports to the Commission, said the plan initially was to use an existing list of approved city and county projects, but that because of inflation and other issues, the advisory council and MDOT staff decided to reopen the application process for the $100 million.

“The law (providing $100 million) was passed in April, and we opened the applications in mid-April to May for locals to apply,” White said. “… In keeping with what we’ve done since 2018, we used computer data analytics, had staff manually go through each application, and also followed the legislative intent that we have equity in projects across the state.”

White said the vetting took some time, and the recommended list was presented to the advisory council a little over a week ago. The council approved the list, White said, then it was provided to the Transportation Commission a week ago.

White said he intends to present the list again for ratification at the commission’s next meeting on July 12, and hopes that Caldwell will have had enough time to review it and the panel will vote unanimously. But under the law, White said, the money sits in limbo until the commission unanimously approves projects.

White said counties and cities presented more than $700 million worth of projects for the $100 million available. He said there were 378 applications, including 297 from counties and 81 from cities or towns. Of those, he said, 54 county projects and seven city or town projects were chosen to present to the commission for the $100 million.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.