The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) wants to HELP cities and counties get much needed highway projects without waiting decades for completion. That’s why the state agency started Highway Enhancement through Local Partnerships (HELP).
Funding is the key to this help. Due to legislative transfer of MDOT funds in the last few years, MDOT has had to seek other funding sources to keep needed construction projects on schedule. MDOT has no bonding authority, but local entities do.
Brenda Znachko, a deputy director at MDOT, discovered a section in the Mississippi Code of 1972 that allows MDOT to enter into agreements to provide funds for projects through issuing local bonds. The funds are repaid by the Federal Highway Administration, and the state transportation commission is responsible for the debt service.
“This is a win/win situation for everyone,” says MDOT’s executive director Butch Brown. “Once we give local entities all the information, they’re fired up about it. This program helps the whole state. It’s affordable and has the guarantee of the federal government. It delivers products decades sooner, and we’re setting the price in today’s dollars.”
Znachko gives Brown credit for coming up with the program’s name. HELP is not a federal program but is unique to Mississippi. It formed quickly and is meeting with rapid acceptance. The seed was planted 11 months ago with a visit to MDOT from Marshall County officials looking for help to construct their portion of the new I-69 running through the northeastern quadrant of the state.
“We were coming off a period of putting off projects for 18 to 24 months, and they wanted to accelerate the I-69 project because they had an industry wanting to come in,” Brown said. “I asked why they didn’t bond it themselves because MDOT has no authority to issue bonds. Then they wanted to know if they could do that.”
Brown’s next call was to the Federal Highway Administration, who gave their blessing, and HELP was born. To be a part of the program, a project must already be in MDOT’s three-year plan. Projects cannot be thrown into the HELP program at will. As imposed by the commission, the debt service cannot exceed a ratio of 3.75%. All bond documents state that money is not paid back by local funds. Local entities are not liable. Once complete, these projects will receive 90% of their maintenance funds from the federal government.
With the $190-million project in Marshall County in environmental negotiations, Tunica County was the first local entity to get on board. It closed a $45-million HELP bond in January of this year to move forward with a portion of the I-69 project. Under normal funding practices, the paving project would have been completed in three stages over a seven-year period. However, with the interlocal agreement bonding deal, the project will be complete in 18 months.
Accelerating the process
Clifton Johnson, the county’s new administrator, says the HELP program was a way for Tunica County to move up the construction process. “There was no hesitation from the county supervisors on the bonding,” he said. “This project provides another four-lane access to Tunica County that will foster more tourism and economic development.”
Brown says that projects receiving funds through the HELP program will create the hottest economic development package in the whole country in the part of the state crisscrossed by the new interstates 269 and 69, I-55 and Highway 78 becoming I-22 from Memphis to Birmingham.
In September, bonds in the amount of $32 million will be issued to replace the infamous S-Curve on I-59 in Laurel. The dangerous curve runs through a large housing authority that Laurel Mayor Melvin Mack says will be demolished. All tenants have been relocated.
“We have some accidents there every week, some deadly, and trucks end up on those houses,” he said. “People don’t anticipate a curve of that magnitude on a major interstate. Through this program we’ve stepped up the progress by at least two years.”
Mack says that although there will be inconvenience to travelers during construction, it will be worth it and will do many things for Laurel.
Making it work
Sen. Billy Hewes III (R-Gulfport) says he and other legislators are playing a supporting role to make sure MDOT has all the tools they need to put this program in place and to secure the funding to make it work.
“These projects are important because any time we can enhance the infrastructure it helps economic development in an area,” he said. “HELP will serve as a catalyst for moving our state forward.”
Brown says MDOT is mainly looking at interstate projects because 90% of the federal government’s participation in Mississippi is on existing interstates. This additional funding will free more state funds for state-funded projects.
“On all roads maintenance is growing and some are 100% state funded,” he added.
An economic development tool
Bonds will also be issued in September for the Canal Road project in Harrison County to connect I-10 with the Mississippi State Port at Gulfport.
Another possible project includes U.S. 49 south of Jackson. Brown hopes eventually to start at both ends of this busy corridor and add more lanes to connect the Capital City and the Coast.
“The HELP program takes projects off the Vision 21 package and moves them forward 20 years,” he said. “It will greatly help and will be a huge, huge economic development tool bringing development around these interchanges and new taxable real estate. We are actively at work on these projects and soon the pot will get really hot.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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