A road closure sign is seen in Issaquena County on Monday, April 15, 2019.

Mississippians over the next two years could see a boom in new major road projects after lawmakers agreed to give the Mississippi Department of Transportation an extra $620 million Thursday as legislators worked to finish budget work and end the 2023 session.

For two decades, lack of funding and rising repair costs have forced MDOT to focus mostly on maintenance instead of new projects or major expansions. But under a measure originally offered by the Senate, $450 million over the next two years will go to traffic “capacity” projects to build or expand major thoroughfares that have been on MDOT’s planning list for years.

The agreement also earmarks $100 million for the state’s Emergency Road and Bridge Repair program to help local governments with roads and bridges that have fallen into disrepair. It provides $40 million to MDOT to match federal dollars and provides $30 million for “multi-modal” projects, including $10 million for work at state ports.

Senate Transportation Chairwoman Jennifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, noted that even more road funding is included in other bills passed in the final hours of the legislative session. She said the long-deferred capacity expansion projects are crucial.

“I am really pleased with this focus on infrastructure,” Branning said. “Expansion with these projects is critical. Moving freight and goods is so critical to the success of our state.”

Late in the legislative session, Gov. Tate Reeves held a press conference and called on lawmakers to earmark $1.3 billion for road work, and essentially let him choose which projects to build. Legislative leaders, who were already discussing increased infrastructure spending, viewed it as an election-year campaign move for the TV cameras.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Briggs Hopson said MDOT told him the increased funding “is about all they can handle for right now” to manage large projects. But he said he hopes the Legislature can continue with increased road funding next year.

The funds for highway fund were part of the overall deal legislative leaders reached late Wednesday. The plan was for the Legislature to vote on that agreement Thursday and perhaps end the session. But legislators will be returning for at least Friday.

Despite that, House Speaker Philip Gunn said, “the budget is on track.”

Gunn said it just takes time to write, print and proofread the budget bills. So, instead of waiting until late on Thursday night to take up those bills, lawmakers opted to come back Friday. It is possible that legislators also will have to work Saturday.

The largest budget bill still pending if the approximately $2.8 billion appropriation for kindergarten through 12th grade education. Reaching agreement on that bill has delayed for almost a week an overall budget deal. But Gunn said the deal reached Thursday placing an additional $100 million in the public education classrooms is still in place.

READ MORE: Mississippi lawmakers resolve impasse over K-12 spending

Among the bills passing both chambers Thursday was a proposal to earmark $71 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for infrastructure improvements for rural water associations. The legislation marks the second consecutive year legislators designated federal COVID-19 relief funds for rural water associations.

There also are some general bills pending for legislators to consider as the session wraps up.

Legislators are working with an unprecedented amount of revenue thanks in large part to COVID-19 relief funds that have poured into the state spurring the economy. Those funds are making it possible to increase funding for transportation, education and for other items.

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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.