Mississippians will have to ante up billions of dollars for infrastructure improvements in intermodal transportation to compete on a level playing field with other states, say state transportation leaders.
“Infrastructure is an area in which we’ve got to make major investments to be competitive,” said Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall. “A major part of infrastructure is transportation, not only highways, but ports, airports and rail. We’re going to have to have all of those pieces of the puzzle if we are going to be a player. We’re not talking millions of dollars of investments. We’re talking billions.”
In an effort to craft a new economic development plan for the state, the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, in partnership with the Mississippi Partnership for Economic Development, held community meetings with business leaders in Jackson, Hattiesburg and Oxford last month to share results of a 13-city tour earlier this year and to assemble an agenda for the upcoming legislative special session.
“I’m pleased the governor is going to have this plan,” Hall said. “Transportation is a major cog in whatever plan is developed and I’m looking forward to the Mississippi Department of Transportation being a major player.”
Jay Moon, deputy director of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, said the state’s intermodal transportation should mesh effectively so that rail, highway, airports and water-based ports work together seamlessly.
“We’ve got raw materials coming in, finished products going out, and we want it all working well together,” he said. “In Mississippi, we’ve been able to do that. Our highway systems are working together very effectively with the rail systems. Airports are working very effectively with our air and rail, and our port systems are working with all three.”
In business and industry, the quality, cost effectiveness and efficiency of those systems becomes very critical, Moon said.
“We’re looking at moving raw materials into a plant site, and distribution of finished products to major markets,” he said. “Mississippi has been able to attract a lot of different industries into the state — both manufacturing and distribution — because of the quality of those systems. We’ve become a major distribution center, not only for the Southeast, but nationwide.”
Increased e-commerce has created a huge surge of product moving through distribution channels, Moon said.
“A lot of people talk about e-commerce and that products are ordered electronically, but the product moves the old-fashioned way — on a truck, by rail or on an airplane,” 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 be able to take real advantage of that as companies begin to centralize major distribution hubs to satisfy this increase in e-commerce activity. There’s already some real significant efforts underway in the state and we’ll be looking at it very heavily to take advantage of that.”
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.
“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 MDECD.
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. 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.
H. Dean Cotten, president of the Mississippi Trucking Association, whose background includes industrial economic development, said new industry cannot be attracted to the state without trucks.
“Truck transportation is the most efficient means of transportation,” he said. “Some companies need rail transportation, but we’re partners with the rail industry. Any type of industrial development has to be able to get raw materials in and finished products out on time. I haven’t heard anyone say there’s a lack of truck transportation in the state.”
Changing the economic future of the Mississippi Delta relies on infrastructure improvements, Hall said.
“That would do more for the Mississippi Delta than any one thing you could possibly do,” he said. “Yes, the education system needs improving, but you’re talking about a generation to see the real effects of that. When we build I-69 through the heart of the Mississippi Delta, it’s going to be the most significant thing that’s happened there in 100 years.”
Mississippi’s 16 ports offer enormous economic potential but lag behind those in neighboring states in development, said Phillip Grissinger, a project manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc., a consulting firm contracted by MDOT to complete a port assessment study.
The results of the port assessment study will be revealed July 25, Hall said.
“Our ports are probably the most underutilized resource we have,” Hall said. “We have not put the infrastructure in place. Gulfport cannot and will not be competitive with New Orleans, Mobile and Tampa until we have the intermodal infrastructure in place. We have to have a good rail going to the port, which is a state-owned port, right up against a shoot for loading and unloading, something we should have done years ago. We can’t just talk about being competitive. We have to make the financial commitment that’s necessary. We’ve not provided the proper tools at Gulfport, which is the best example I can think of, but take it from there all the way up the river to Natchez, Vicksburg, Greenville. With the Tenn-Tom, we’ve got so much opportunity. Everything you read tells you the next markets are Central and South America, and who could be better positioned to pursue those markets than Mississippi? Yet landlocked Iowa exports more agricultural products than we do.”
Harold Burdine, port director of the Greenville Port Commission, said a much-needed port expansion project in Washington County is underway.
“Although we haven’t yet seen increased traffic, when the expansion is complete, we do expect it,” he said. “We’re already seeing an increase in trade with Mexico and South America affect barge shipments. We expect the inland river terminals to participate in this increase in trade. There is not very much traffic on the Mississippi River now, but there’s quite a bit of it in the northwest. We hope to see container-on-barge catch on in the Mississippi (River).”
Since the merger of Illinois Central and Canadian National, which created the NAFTA railway, connecting all major markets from Canada to Mexico, rail activity in Mississippi has increased. As soon as the rail is upgraded, a proposed Amtrak route between Meridian and Vicksburg will boost business.
“Fifteen years ago, rail wasn’t looked at necessarily as one of the choice areas of moving products, unless it involved moving very heavy objects,” Moon said. “But more and more products are moving by rail all of the time and we&
#8217;re very well positioned to take advantage of the movement.
Rail in other areas of the state, including the track between Hattiesburg and Gulfport, desperately needs to be upgraded. And a proposed billion-dollar high-speed rail from Jacksonville, Fla. to Houston would jump start the economic flow along the coast, Hall said.