Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall still marvels at what he says was the foresight of Mississippi’s leaders a quarter century ago to fund an ambitious highway construction effort through an 18 cents gas tax levy.
The effort required an override of Democratic Gov. William Allain’s veto — an outcome decided by a one-vote margin that Hall, as a Republican state representative, likes to think he provided. “That 1987 vote was the single-most important economic development issue passed in the Mississippi Legislature,” he said in a recent interview.
As a recent editorial in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal noted in commemorating the retirement of longtime Mississippi House Speaker Billy McCoy, the 1987 Highway Program pushed through by McCoy and Hall “transformed the physical and economic landscape of Northeast Mississippi and much of the rest of the state and gave Mississippi one of the top highway systems in the South. It also has saved untold lives, improving not only economic prospects for this area but greatly enhancing the safety of motorists.”
But over the years the legislation’s flaws have been painfully obvious, says Hall in explaining an effort to persuade lawmakers to dedicate money to adequately maintain the once gleaming new highways that today show signs of neglect.
“When we passed that legislation we made two mistakes. We made no provision for maintaining the system and set the rate at a flat 18 cents.
“Back then, gas cost a dollar. If we had made it a percentage we would not have this problem now.”
The rate has stayed fixed as the cost of highway construction has climbed three-fold and maintenance costs have doubled, he said.
“That 18 cents of 1987 is now worth 10 cents. It doesn’t take a real bright fella to realize we’ve got a problem.”
And Hall realizes his effort has a problem as well. “The Legislature doesn’t want to hear it. The governor doesn’t want to hear it,” he said.
Hall describes himself as a “messenger,” but concedes he is not the one best suited for that role. It’s a job, he said, for Mississippi’s business leaders.
“MDOT (the Mississippi Department of Transportation) is not going to be able to do it. The business community is going to have to do it,” Hall said.
“If the business community doesn’t recognize the problem, then they’ve got a real problem,” added Hall, who noted he is “speaking to every Rotary Club I can speak to.”
Hall has not signed up any high-profile business support, but says he has not given up.
Seeing a need
Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, said he and his organization are happy to hear Hall out but are not “yet ready to jump on the bandwagon.”
Wilson said the Economic Council, which serves as the state Chamber of Commerce, has “always been a big supporter of highway infrastructure.” The membership, however, has not yet taken a position on the issue, he said.
The council has gone so far as to call for a dedicated source of highway funding in its Mississippi Blueprint strategy for improving the state’s economy and quality of life.
“That’s one of the things we will be focusing on pretty aggressively this fall,” Wilson said. “We’re focusing on infrastructure across the board,” he added, citing pressures on towns and cities across Mississippi to upgrade their deteriorating wastewater facilities
Crumbling infrastructure is an issue “that’s coming our way,” he said, noting that roads, bridges and public utilities have sustained years of neglect during an economic slump yet to go away.
Wilson acknowledged he has heard “talk in the background” on options the state could explore for better highway maintenance and is pleased Hall has stepped out front on the issue. “I applaud Dick for getting out there and starting this conversation,” he said.
Speaking at a business luncheon in Starkville in late August, Mississippi Manufacturers Association president Jay Moon called the state’s transportation network his organization’s number two priority behind workforce development.
Efficient truck travel is vital whether the trade involved uses a seaport, airport or rail, he noted. The highway system that supports all three must be continuously maintained and upgraded, he said.
But like the Mississippi Economic Council, the association is holding off on any support for Hall.
“We have to wait and see what the proposals are and what it would be used for,” Moon said. “We have too many examples in government of money being used for something else.”
Investments in transportation must be made at both the federal and state levels, he added. “The question is how do we do it? What is the best way to do it?”
Mississippi Trucking Association president David Roberts agreed to respond to several questions regarding support for Hall’s initiative, but did not reply by press time.
Staying at the top
At stake, as Hall sees it, is Mississippi’s standing as home to the top highway system in the Mid-South and the 16th best nationally, a ranking from the Reason Foundation, a public policy institute that has transportation among its specialties..
Today’s ranking is a far climb from last place, which Mississippi occupied in 1987, Hall said.
A distinction Mississippi’s highway network has, according to Hall, is that its design is based on getting goods to market. “Our highways are designed for trucks. If we designed them for cars, it would cost us only half as much.”
The payoff: A move away from a stagnant economy and into an era in which the state can successfully compete for auto plants and other manufacturing giants, Hall said.
While Halls calls the 1987 Highway Program the single-biggest success he witnessed in his 25 years in the Legislature, protecting that achievement has been a challenge at which MDOT has not always prevailed. When the state gets in a fiscal pinch, it turns to the Highway Trust Fund, as it did two years ago in its quest to meet Medicaid funding, Hall said. “They just reached in and took $300 million and put it somewhere else than where it was suppose to go.”
Before that, the Gov. Ronnie Musgrove administration took “$50 million out and spent it on God knows what,” Hall added.
If increased funding does materialize, a way must be found to ensure “they keep their cotton pickin’ hands off it,” he said of lawmakers.
This year, MDOT received $181 million for highway maintenance and is asking for $190 million in the new budget.
“We need to double that and do it year to year,” he said. “It’s not something you can do just one time and you’re through with it.”
Hall puts the state’s current highway maintenance needs at $509 million. For locally maintained roads, add another $136 million, he said.
Hall concedes he seems to be a lone voice in the wilderness but he expects sooner or later someone will hear and a conversation can be started.
“For one time we’re ahead of other folks and we need to keep it that way,” he said. “After 25 years, it is time to assess where we are.”