A column by Bill Minor that appeared in many papers across our state in February focused on the Mississippi Transportation Commission and set forth several items on which I would like to give my perspective as Mississippi’s Southern District Transportation commissioner and chairman.
Mr. Minor compared administration policies of the Transportation Commission to “a gigantic version of the old county beat system.” I served eight terms as county engineer in George County, two terms in Greene County and four terms in Jackson County. This long, close work with numerous supervisors in both the “beat” and “unit” systems has given me knowledge and understanding of the supervisor system.
The Mississippi Transportation Commission is not simply a statewide version of the “beat system.”
In a county beat system, the money is split up among the “beats” by local supervisors. The beat supervisor is directly responsible for all aspects of his beat including personnel, equipment, schedules, finances and priority needs. The beat supervisors determine the amount of money available to them by raising or lowering tax rates.
The transportation commission does not have authority to levy taxes or authorize bonds, as this is under the purview of the Mississippi Legislature and the governor. The commission does award contracts, approve expenditures, set policy, approve procedure, hire an executive director and perform other related duties. The commission is not responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), as a county supervisor is for his beat.
MDOT can expect yearly revenue of approximately $760 million for the next few years. After passing funds onto cities, State Aid Road Division and others, the balance is spent on new construction, debt service ($70 million), maintenance, law enforcement, salaries, administration, equipment, buildings, rails, welcome centers, public transit and other programs.
In the near term, it is anticipated that MDOT will spend approximately $430 million each year on construction of highways. More than 50% of this amount is set by state legislative direction for the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program ($190 million) and the Gaming Roads Program ($36 million).
A majority of the federal funds is also directed to specific projects and categories such as bridge replacement, traffic enhancement, interstate maintenance, etc. Each federal aid project requires matching state MDOT funds.
The remainder of unencumbered funds is approximately $120 million that can be directed to needed projects around the state. This approximately $120 million of revenue is distributed to the six MDOT districts of which there are two in each commissioner’s district. These funds are programmed and planned many years into the future. I would have to serve two or more four-year terms in order to have a part in designating a new highway construction project. The needs for this 15% of unencumbered funds include all state highways not listed in the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program, the Gaming Roads Program or the Interstate Highway System. The staggering needs for this segment of our transportation system (approximately 11,000 miles) is so very critical they transcend politics. With only 15% of the funds at our disposal, there is no way the transportation commissioners or MDOT could mount a “major highway building program statewide on a first-need priority basis” as Mr. Minor suggested in his editorial.
The transportation commission and MDOT are fully dependent on the Mississippi Legislature and the U.S. Congress for funding. Not only do they fund MDOT, they are also heavily involved in directing where and how a majority of the funds are spent. This does not allow the capable MDOT personnel to use their considerable skill to direct the funds to the most effective projects. As the current funding levels are not sufficient to meet growing needs in maintenance and construction, it is imperative that the taxpayer gets the maximum benefit from each dollar.
As the volume of automobile and truck traffic increases and the fuel economy of these vehicles also increases, the rate of revenue to build and maintain our transportation system is slowing. This along with other economic factors has served since the energy crisis of the early 1970s to keep transportation from catching up.
Based on more than 40 years as a “highway” engineer and 35 years as a private businessman, I want to assure the people of Mississippi that MDOT has 3,300 employees who are dedicated, hard-working men and women that are a credit to our state! I am proud of them and their sacrificial efforts to build a great transportation system while having to face the unwarranted criticism that has recently been so prevalent in the media.
Before deciding that appointed commissioners is the better way, I would ask for a careful review of the education, experience, background and qualifications of the three current commissioners, for comparison with any other elected or appointed board or commission in our state. I would also suggest close comparison to our sister states.
When I, as a commissioner, make a decision, it is based on the best interest of almost three million Mississippians and not the political whims of a future governor whose agenda may or may not include the finest transportation system possible.
There are currently three state DOTs experiencing corruption difficulties that may result in jail time. These three state DOTs have appointed leaders by either a governor or a board; thus, neither appointing leaders nor electing leaders precludes illegal activity. I invite you and your readers to closely consider the many different methods all over the U.S.A. Compare the efficiency and economy of each system and if change is in order, let’s do it with study and input from the people, the industry and our government.
Can MDOT improve? Absolutely! In fact, the other commissioners and I along with the MDOT staff are committed to doing this.
We enlist the study, review, constructive criticism and support of every Mississippian. There is much to be done for transportation in our great state.
Wayne H. Brown