More than 600 miles of the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program are open to traffic, with nearly 1,000 miles to go before the entire program, including 619 miles in a fourth phase added by the 1994 Legislature, is complete. But even with the catch-up program’s progress, the lack of maintenance funds continues to be an unresolved and often-disputed issue as traffic continues to rapidly increase.
“We’re rocking and rolling, but we’ve got a ways to go,” said Mississippi Department of Transportation spokesperson Donna Lum.
As of March 1999, MDOT had 957.3 miles under contract, with 603 miles open to traffic. Of the 1987 legislation’s original 1,077 miles, scheduled to be built over a 14-year period at a cost of $1.6 billion, 130.7 miles remain to be built. In the fourth phase, slated to begin in FY 2006, 824.7 miles have not yet been contracted. An updated report is scheduled to come out next month, in time for the fiscal year report, Lum said.
In the Delta, where four-lane highways were needed perhaps the most, contracts have been awarded on all segments of U.S. 61 and U.S. 82. When the contract is awarded next year to link Silver City to Carter on U.S. 49, it will be the final project to bring a four-lane connection from the Delta to the state’s capital.
“The basic idea of the 1987 highway program was to link every Mississippian to a major four-lane highway within 30 miles or 30 minutes and it has been a tremendous benefit to economic development efforts in the state,” said J.C. Burns, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development. “The last report I saw indicated that the program now includes some $4 billion in four-lane work and other improvements for approximately 1,772 miles of state highways. The program passed because of a common vision shared by legislative leaders and other government officials and, perhaps most importantly, with community leaders at the grassroots level.”
U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss), a member of the House Transportation Committee, said good transportation is “the artery to commerce.”
“Finishing our work to make Mississippi fully connected and integrated into our four-lane highway system is crucial,” Shows said.
1987 plan merely a catch-up program, says
former legislator turned MDOT commish
Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, one of the legislative leaders when the 1987 highway bill passed, said it was merely a catch-up program.
“Nobody said it would build highways of the next century,” Hall said. “It was to get us where we could be competitive. It never caught up and never will.”
From 1989 to 1998, the state’s population increased less than 7%, but the number of vehicles on Mississippi’s highways increased 55%. The number of 18-wheelers in the same nine-year period increased 99.1%, said Hall.
“With those statistics, the 1987 program never caught up,” he said. “Now we have to start talking about another highway program to take care of the growth we’re having. We’re running out of money, spending $250 million and only getting $177 million in, so we’re having to slow down the program because the cash flow is not sufficient to finish the program on schedule. When we finish that program, we’ll be behind, like we were in 1987.”
E-COMMERCE FUELS DELIVERY DEMAND
H. Dean Cotten, president of the Mississippi Trucking Association, a 600-member organization representing several hundred thousand trucks, said that’s a problem.
“More than 80% of all freight is hauled by trucks,” Cotten said. “Every study I’ve seen indicates that percentage is going to continue to grow. As a result of the demand of the American people to get their goods and services delivered, there’s a lot of congestion all over America.”
Jay Moon, deputy director of MDECD, said increased e-commerce has created a huge surge of product moving through distribution channels.
“A lot of people talk about e-commerce and products that are ordered electronically, but the products move the old-fashioned way — mostly by trucks,” Moon said.
“Projections of growth in e-commerce are astronomical. Because of the efficiency, and the quality of distribution channels we have, we’re going to have to be able to take real advantage of that as companies begin to centralize major distribution hubs to satisfy this increase in e-commerce activity.”
TRUCKING INDUSTRY PAYING, TOO
The trucking industry pays a “tremendous amount” into the state’s highway trust fund to help pay for highways and maintenance, Cotten said, adding that “anybody that drives any kind of vehicle on America’s highways shares in the cost of that.”
“The amount of money that Mississippi has received for additional highways has greatly improved,” he said.
“If the number of trucks nearly doubled in a nine or 10-year period, a great question would be: how much has the MDOT allocation of highway monies increased in that same time period? I’d venture to say that percentage would equal or excel the amount of truck traffic on the highways.”
The 1987 highway program was a “tremendous thing,” including the 1994 bill that added a fourth phase, Cotten said, “but I can’t believe the Mississippi Legislature ever built a highway without recognizing the fact that it would have to be maintained and plan for that, too.”
NO MAINTENANCE FUNDS `A DUMB THING`
Passing the 1987 program without putting in a nickel to maintain it was “a dumb thing,” Hall said.
“It’s like buying a new automobile and never changing your oil,” he said. “Businessmen don’t invest that amount of capital without maintaining a capital investment — but that’s what we’re doing.”
Proposed legislation to fund a maintenance program didn’t budge in the 2000 legislative session, Hall said.
“Everybody wants to shoot the messenger, but all you can do is point out the problem,” he said. “The Legislature has the solution.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.