At a press conference last week, Charlie Williams, president of the T1 Coalition, laid out his organization’s proposal for at least a short-term solution to the state’s lack of funding for road and bridge maintenance.
T1’s plan does not involve new money. In fact, it’s the opposite —Williams and others who gathered at the Capital are pushing for old money.
Since 1990, the Mississippi Legislature has diverted approximately $300 million from monies collected from user fees under the 1987 Road Program — intended for road and bridge work — to the General Fund, the Budget Contingency Fund and other state agencies or localities. Williams and other officials gathered at the State Capitol news conference called for that money to be repaid to the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT).
“This idea is not a new tax or user fee. It is simply allocating money for which it was originally intended,” Williams said. “We understand that the Legislature has the authority to fund this program however they choose, and this is one idea.”
Williams said the $300 million would serve to “bridge the gap” between now and 2016 when he hopes lawmakers would craft a comprehensive, long-term funding solution. It would also avoid trying to enact a permanent solution during an election cycle.
At the heart of the issue is the 18¢-per-gallon user fee established in 1987 to maintain the roads and bridges. Due to inflation, cars getting better gas mileage and other factors, the state is not currently collecting enough funding for road and bridge maintenance.
A Mississippi Senate task force recently wrapped up months of hearings and work without coming up with even a short-term answer.
Whether the Legislature will respond to the call for repayment of funds to MDOT is uncertain, but at least one House member is calling for his peers to act.
Rep. Robert Johnson III, a Democrat representing Adams, Claiborne and Jefferson counties and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said, “This truly a public safety issue, an economic development issue. There are some things we can do short-term that does not involve taxes.”
Both Williams and Johnson were quick to downplay criticism of the MDOT after a recent PEER report found a lack of transparency at the agency concerning appropriations for road and bridge maintenance. Williams said he believes MDOT is working on the issue and that PEER has said it is willing to review the matter in the coming months to ensure that MDOT is rectifying the problem.
“This is not a state agency issue,” Johnson said flatly.
Blake Wilson, who heads the Mississippi Economic Council, shared results of electronic surveys taken during the MEC’s Pathway to Progress Tour, part of its Mississippi Blueprint. Asked to rate the state’s roads, only 1.2 percent of respondents rated them “excellent” while 15.38 percent responded “good.” Nearly 19 percent rated the roads as “poor,” the lowest ranking.
When asked how important transportation infrastructure is to economic development, 88.04 percent responded “very important,” the highest ranking.
Wilson emphasized that when the 1987 program was enacted, Mississippi was last in the U.S. in four-lane highway accessibility. Today, the state ranks 16th and first in the South.
“Why would we give up our competitive advantage? Why would we want to give up ground we have gained?” he asked.
Wilson again stated that the MEC was planning on conducting a study of the state’s transportation needs. Similar to the study MEC conducted on health care issues, Wilson promised a study costing “several hundreds of thousands of dollars” and taking months to complete.
“Today, we find Mississippi’s economic development future and safety threatened by deteriorating roads and bridges. We look forward to working with the state’s leadership and the Legislature to find a solution that will benefit all of our citizens,” Williams said.