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ONE MORE YEAR: Leaders want year more of study on comprehensive road, bridge upkeep

The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee is hugely disappointed that Mississippi business leaders want to put off addressing a growing backlog of road and bridge upkeep until the 2016 session.

Bridge-rgbKnowing that Republican legislative leaders likely will willingly go along with an extra year of delay, committee Chairman Willie Simmons, a Cleveland Democrat, will ask for bond money to cover repairs on bridges judged to be in the worst shape, many of which he says are in the Delta.

“We have a tendency to kick the can down the road,” he said in a recent interview. “The road is so bad it is tearing the can up as we kick it. We don’t need to do that anymore.”

Simmons will be joined in his request by the Delta Council, a longstanding organization of the region’s business and agricultural leaders.

Delta Council’s Transportation Committee in September passed a resolution urging Mississippi’s congressional delegation, Legislature and governor to help secure around $50 million in funding for emergency repairs on bridges along Mississippi Highway 6 between Batesville and Clarksdale. The approximately 40-mile stretch has nine to 10 deficient bridges, according to Walter Gresham, Delta Council president and chair of the council’s transportation committee.

» READ MORE: Politics of paying for transportation: Hand wringing and a lot of talk

“It’s very urgent that something needs to be done,” said Gresham, and noted the road is a major corridor for grain. Hundreds of truckloads of grain have been detoured from Highway 6 even though they are hauling a legally permitted weight load, the Delta Farm Press reported in September.

The bridges are posted for weights far below the allowed 84,000 pounds “because they are more than 50 years old and deteriorating,” said Butch Scipper, farmer and vice chair of the Delta Council’s Transportation Committee, in the Delta Farm Press report.

Gresham said he expects farmers will begin taking their grain out of Mississippi to Memphis.

Simmons in 2013 led a transportation task force of legislators and representatives of transportation-reliant business sectors. They found an urgent need for the state to begin whittling a road and bridge maintenance backlog of over $ 2 billion.

Business leaders, through the Mississippi Economic Council, which serves as the state’s chamber of commerce, declined to support a 2014 effort but left open a possibility of support for one in 2015. MEC officials emphasized that no legislation came forth for anyone to consider.

Simmons said an endorsement from business leaders of the task force conclusions would have helped. What he got from them, he said, was “we didn’t need to do anything.”

Year after next will be different.

At least that’s the pledge from Joe Sanderson, CEO & chairman of Sanderson Farms and chair of the MEC transportation study committee.

Deficient-Bridge-2014_rgb“We’re looking at funding. We’re just now getting started,” Sanderson said in a recent interview.

“It’s going to be easier for elected officials to deal with this more effectively if they have the support of business leaders,” said Sanderson, head of a multi-state, nearly $1 billion poultry operation based in Laurel.

Looking at 2015, Sanderson said if the legislative leadership deems state finances are sound enough to put money into bridge repairs, “I would certainly support that.”

Sanderson Farms’ trucks are having do a lot of “bridge dodging” in the Delta and North Mississippi, according to Sanderson. “I know we do need bridge work done,” he said.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation reports that 80 percent of Mississippi’s several hundred posted and deficient bridges are north of Interstate 20, an east-west corridor.

While the MEC panel has done only preliminary examinations of funding sources, it likely will propose increases in the motor fuels tax, car tags and drivers licenses, according to Sanderson. “I don’t know if there will be additional ones, but those are the primary sources,” he said.

The focus will be on user fees, Sanderson noted. “The people who use the highways are going be the ones who pay for the upkeep of the roads.”

He said he would be comfortable with the state issuing bonds for bridges but not for roads. Bridges, like bonds, have a long life, he noted.

On the other hand, road maintenance is a pay-as-you-go proposition, Sanderson said. “I would be uncomfortable with bonds for road repairs because this is a short-term issue and I think that ought to be paid for with user fees.”

In the meantime, Sanderson added, “The main thing we need to do is our homework. We will go to the public statewide. We want to see what is on their minds.”

The MEC transportation panel is getting data gathering and analysis help from the engineering and transportation departments of both the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University.

The study will also address airport and seaport needs.

A 2013 report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, concluded that the Mississippi Department of Transportation should do better at accounting for the money it spends. The PEER review also concluded state funding had fallen far behind road and bridge maintenance needs. Mississippi, PEER said, must spend about $400 million more per year to keep roads and bridges from getting worse.

The watchdog panel deemed the state’s 18 cents a gallon tax on motor fuels, in place since 1987, antiquated as vehicles have become far more fuel efficient in recent decades.

 

Where’s the problem?

Sanderson, the MEC transportation panel chair, is not so sure roads and highways are the problem, at least not the immediate problem.

“Our roads are in pretty good shape,” he said, though he voiced concern about “their rate of decline.”

The immediate attention should be on bridges and the farm-to-market road network, he said.

Dick Hall, MDOT Central District commissioner, said not tackling highway upkeep comprehensively could be pound foolish. “If you let a highway get to a certain point of deterioration, you can’t bring it back. You have to totally rebuild it,” said Hall.

Hall has tried unsuccessfully the past several years to persuade lawmakers to tackle statewide transportation maintenance. “I’ve had a lot of them come to me and say we know you’re right and we need to do that,” he said of legislators.

None of those, however, has included the legislative leadership, he said.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, who represents several Pine Belt counties and chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said he is willing to discuss the bond funding Sen. Simmons is seeking, but would not commit to anything further. His panel would decide whether the measure moved forward or died.

“We would definitely have to look at where the finances are,” Fillingane said in a recent interview. “The economy is definitely improving, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to go on a spending binge.”

Simmons and Gresham say 2015 could be the last year to sell bonds at historically low interest rates. Even with emergency bridge money in the 2015 session, awarding a contract for the repairs will take at least a year and a half, Simmons and Gresham noted.

Meanwhile, without new money, MDOT’s district commissioners may have to decide whether to put off new road and bridge construction and divert the money to maintenance, said Gresham, an Indianola petroleum retailer who has a chain of combination convenience store-gas stations in Central and North Mississippi.

But without the stepped-up maintenance, economic development will be hampered, Gresham predicted. “I can name 10 to 12 companies that are impacted by this.”

It’s the job of legislators, he said, “to decide how they’re going to raise the money.”

 

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