Slightly less than two years ago former legislator and current Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall could not cite a single business leader or industry group outside of the Mississippi Road Builders Association that backed his campaign for better road and bridge upkeep.
Hall still hasn’t got a truckload of endorsements, but he has brought transportation infrastructure and the need to pay for it to the forefront.
With that in mind, he’s campaigning to get his message heard even more widely. “I just finished speaking to the Farm Bureau. I’ll be speaking to the Delta Council in Greenville,” Hall said in a recent interview.
“It’s going to get some traction. People are realizing we aren’t crying wolf. The conversation is now out there.”
Hall said he is disappointed he has not received endorsements from either timber growers, the Manufacturing Association and or the Farm Bureau Federation. “They ought to be out there leading the fight. But they have not stepped forward,” he said.
Randy Knight, Farm Bureau Federation president, said he has yet to receive a “clear direction” from his 194,000 members on establishing a funding source for transportation maintenance. He nonetheless concedes the substandard condition of Mississippi’s roads and bridges is getting worse with time.
“In the south we can’t get timber to market because of weight issues,” he said, and added that in the Delta, low weight limits on bridges are forcing sweet potato haulers to detour far out of their way.
The low weight limits on deteriorating bridges are equally troublesome for poultry producers from Southeast Mississippi across to the state’s Southwest portion, said Mark Leggett, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association.
Though the association has yet to take a formal position on Hall’s call for a dedicated source of revenue for road and bridge maintenance, Leggett said poultry processors are wasting a huge amount of time and motor fuel taking detours caused by substandard bridges and roads.
“Our concern at the moment is the rural roads and bridges because that is where the chickens are,” Leggett said.
During the time a typical chicken is growing up on a farm, a processor can make 60 to 80 trips to that farm, according to Leggett. “They are bringing feed or delivering chicks. With the bridges we are having to take detours. So if we have one (low weight substandard) bridge, we must take a 12-mile detour. If you’ve got to do that 50 times at $4 a gallon, that gets expensive.”
The backing of the Farm Bureau and Poultry Association would give a huge boost to Hall’s campaign, considering that the poultry-and-eggs sector puts $2.5 billion annually into the pockets of Mississippi’s poultry producers, while timber and agriculture represent another $4 billion annually.
Hall’s effort has also yet to get a nod from the state’s Chamber of Commerce, the Mississippi Economic Council. The organization says it wants another year to study the full range of the state’s transportation infrastructure and how it bears on business operations and economic development.
In the meantime, the MEC is on a town hall road tour of Mississippi and has been accompanied by representatives of the T1 Coalition, a group made up of representatives of business, industry, economic development interests, cities, counties and state agencies.
Charlie Williams, a former Mississippi legislator and chief of staff to Gov. Haley Barbour, said he thinks proponents of improved transportation infrastructure have caught the attention of the state’s business community. “I believe so, yes,” he said in an email.
“We owe it to our business community to provide viable, safe and cost-effective routes to move their goods and services out into the marketplace. And, we owe it to our citizens at-large to ensure we have sound and safe modes of transportation.”
Most people understand that a quality transportation system can be “the catalyst for creating better jobs throughout the state,” said Williams, head of Ridgeland law firm Butler Snow’s Government Relations Division.
Williams and the T1 Coalition will have the job of doing outreach to legislators once a proposal the Coalition deems viable is presented.
“The T1 Coalition is here to provide support and the necessary resources to partner with our decision makers to find a solution,” said Williams, who served in the House from 1976 to 1999.
“The worst thing that can happen is if the problem is ignored. We need to remember that the 1987 Road Program, funded by a nickel fuel tax, passed in an election year with legislators overriding Gov. [William] Allain’s veto. As I recall, not a single lawmaker that supported the increase lost their election.”
Mississippi’s business and industry leaders were the driving force behind the 1987 Road Program, Williams noted, “and today we are gaining momentum with their help and support.”
Which direction the issue goes could ultimately be decided by Mississippi voters, as occurred in Arkansas in 2012 with passage of a decade-long, half-penny sales taxes for road and bridge maintenance. Without endorsing the Arkansas option, Williams noted that its success came from “the fact that the tax expires, a specific set of projects were outlined, and the business community supported it.”