JACKSON — Proposed legislation that would change the way transportation commissioners are selected — the result of a House study committee report critical of the Mississippi Department of Transportation dated Jan. 11 — has gathered momentum and is awaiting action in a conference committee.
House Bill 1489, authored by Rep. J.P. Compretta (D-Bay St. Louis), chairman of the Transportation Committee, would allow the MDOT to be overseen by commissioners appointed by the governor instead of elected.
On Feb. 1, the House approved the bill 102-19. After a number of key changes were made in the Senate, it was overwhelmingly approved by a voice vote on March 7. Next step: conference committee, where the bill could sit until the end of session.
An unnamed source said that House leaders and past MDOT directors have often been at odds, particularly over situations involving alleged promises for infrastructure improvements in certain areas, such as Booneville, Starkville or West Point, when right-of-ways had not yet been acquired or municipalities didn’t belly up their portion. Another example was a privatized maintenance deal for the North Mississippi district that didn’t pan out.
But the political swiftness of the House approval of HB 1489, an agenda item that was moved to the top of the legislative calendar, caught many people by surprise, causing speculation that the bill was a political warning that, instead of stalling, gathered steam.
“After a long study and waiting for a PEER committee report based on what we learned this past summer and fall and the history back for several years, we came to the conclusion that we weren’t getting optimum returns from the available transportation dedicated dollars and that the changes necessary to reach as near optimum returns as possible were not being produced in the current system,” said William J. McCoy (D-Rienzi), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a member of the study committee. “The proposed legislation was a collective decision. All members agreed, and all but one signed the bill to effect the changes.”
The study committee, comprised of members of the three House committees with primary responsibility for transportation — Transportation, Appropriations and Ways and Means — appointed by House Speaker Tim Ford, gave this assessment of MDOT’s program management:
• MDOT lacks an accurate and timely management information system;
• MDOT produces inaccurate cost estimates and incurs overruns without accountability;
• MDOT’s current planning, design and construction process does not facilitate internal management, oversight and control of costs.
“It’s very important to know that just the change in the commission setup is not all there is to (the bill),” said McCoy. “Reforming the business administration of the department is just as important.”
The proposed changes were prompted by MDOT’s report last summer that, after unseasonably warm, dry weather resulted in expediting the state’s four-lane highway program, little cash was available for new construction and the agency’s reserve funds were running low.
“We passed the big 1987 road program and ran aground in 1993,” McCoy said. “Then in 1994, we passed another program that extended the 1987 program and created a fourth phase and put in gaming roads and a rural bridge program. We gave long-term stable financing to all of these.”
The state transportation department is not set up like general fund agencies, McCoy said.
“MDOT doesn’t have to compete for general fund money during the ups and downs like the others with sales taxes, income taxes and other taxes,” McCoy said. “In 1987, we separated road fund money from the general fund. Of all the state agencies, transportation ought to be the one that can budget within its means. We gave some temporary borrowing authority, which they have taken a lot of advantage of, but to be confronted again with running aground on the budget with a stable funding source brought to our attention once again the need to look at the system. We have no complaint with any person over there in the past, present or future. It’s not an individual situation or particular district.”
The House study also referred to “piecemealing.”
“MDOT has let contracts in short lengths contrary to legislative intent and state law,” read the report. “The Mississippi Transportation Commission has not justified all short lengths in accordance with the law. (And) piecemealing is inefficient and potentially adds unnecessary cost to the construction process.”
Among other recommendations:
• Require MDOT to develop budgets for each segment which meets criteria;
• Require MDOT to let turnkey construction contracts for segments rather than breaking construction process into multiple contracts;
• Require MDOT to construct segments in usable lengths greater than 10 miles; and
• Require a listing of all segments less than 10 miles approved by the Transportation Commission during the previous fiscal year and the justification for such segments.
But the meat of the study addresses financial management measures and prioritization of program funds, such as, “MDOT is unable to complete current highway construction programs in a timely manner with the current funding stream due to consistent underestimation of program costs and inaccuracy of cost projections,” and “MDOT has focused resources on construction of new highways instead of allocating sufficient funds for maintenance of highways.”
The study concluded with recommending:
• Prioritize funding to ensure construction and maintenance needs are met; and
• Restructure the current administration system to provide for a more independent governing board and the application of scientific management principles.
“We are concerned about engineering and the lack of long range priority planning and sticking to it, the accountability for dollars within the programs,” McCoy said. “We are concerned about being able to compare one project with another, being able to break it down and see where the money went. I won’t say the system is broken, but it lacks the ability to reach optimum possibilities. The management tools are not what they ought to be. We aren’t able to get the answers in the Legislature in order to make shifts in the budget to make priority decisions. We just don’t think the system will allow for the changes needed to move ahead for the next 20 years.”
The bill calls for financing to remain primarily with MDOT, with the stipulation that line item changes could be made through appropriation bills, McCoy said.
“We don’t need to micromanage,” he said. “We need a system to carry out legislative and gubernatorial mandates without having to micromanage.”
The Senate version was tabled 14-2 early in committee, but state senators revised HB1489 and approved it in committee without a dissenting vote to reflect several changes: transportation commissioners remain elected officials; 10-mile sections could be let under certain conditions; turnkey project requirements would be relaxed; and other PEER recommendations, rather than only the House study recommendations, would apply.
“We went back to the original language that gives MDOT the discretion to let less than 10 miles sections under certain conditions, such as a safety deficiency or economic development of an area,” said Sen. Bob M. Dearing (D-Natchez), chairman of the Highways and Transportation Committee. “We also did our own survey of the Southern states, from Florida to Texas, and there was no legislation or regulation that said they couldn’t build a segment 10 miles or less.&a
On the Senate floor, an amendment to extend the repealer on gaming roads was added so that 20-year bonds could be sold to finance the roadwork.
“I wish the bill had died in the Senate, because the scary thing about conference is t