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Survey of business & political leaders shows dismal assessment of roads, bridges

Electronic voting by about 150 business and political leaders Thursday showed that eight out of 10 of those surveyed rank repairs and maintenance of Mississippi’s highways and bridges above all other transportation infrastructure needs.

Roads and bridge repairs and upkeep won out over such pursuits as expanding the state’s highway system and upgrading airports and seaports. A capacity crowd on hand for an afternoon session of the Mississippi Economic Council’s Capital Days took part in the voting.

MEC organizers devoted the session to the Blueprint Transportation/Infrastructure Task Force created last year to develop a new comprehensive, long-range approach for meeting Mississippi’s transportation needs.

Fifty-six percent of the audience members deemed the state’s transportation system inadequate.

State transportation officials have put the backlog of road and bridge needs at more than $2 billion. A 2013 report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, supported that assessment. While it concluded that the Mississippi Department of Transportation must 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.

PEER’s needs assessment 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.

Sanderson Farms CEO Joe Sanderson, chairman of the Blueprint Transportation/Infrastructure Task Force, said the 15-member MEC panel plans to present its blueprint and proposals for funding it sometime before the 2016 legislative session. It has met twice in recent months and will meet regularly throughout 2015.

The size of Thursday’s audience “tells me we have a lot of interest” in the transportation infrastructure issue, said Sanderson, who has some familiarity with the state’s transportation system from the more-than 500 tractor-trailers his poultry company runs throughout its multi-state operation.

Sanderson noted the success Mississippi achieved with passage of the 18 cents a gallon motor fuels tax nearly 30 years ago when it added 1,807 miles of four-lane highways. The road building effort brought the state into the top tier of state’s with modern highway systems. However, state leaders subsequently failed to address maintenance needs, he said.

Further delays, he predicted, “will lead to greater costs in the future.”

Conversely, Sanderson added, “Investing in transportation will pay long-term dividends” that include new jobs, improved commerce and safer roads and bridges.

Sanderson said he has met three times with MDOT officials and is beginning to understand state road-and-bridge needs. “They have been very forthcoming with me,” he said of state transportation officials.

“I feel good about where we are. We’re looking at it from a 360-degree view. It’s not going to be fast, but it is going to be thorough.”

In coming weeks, Sanderson and the task force will look closely at city and county transportation infrastructure, which accounts for 65 percent to 75 percent of publicly maintained roads and bridges.

MDOT maintains fewer road miles than local jurisdictions, but roads and bridges the state maintains handle the majority of vehicle traffic, according to Scott Waller, MEC’s COO.

Waller, in briefing the audience on the task force study, noted the participation of researchers and professors from the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University.

The process includes reports on how other states are addressing transportation infrastructure, according to Waller.

Overall, the task force must make sure it does the right research to determine genuine transportation needs and that it continually verifies the correctness of the research, Waller said.

“We are starting to see it come together on where the deficiencies are” (on the state level) and how they can be addressed, he added.

A crucial step will be to ensure state leaders act on the report. “The goal is not only to develop the policy but to see that the process is carried out,” Waller said.

That process likely will entail persuading state lawmakers to allocate revenue, and possibly enact either new fees or taxes. Sanderson said some sort of “bond or user fee” could be used to cover the costs.

“The people who use the roads are the ones who will pay for it,” he said.

 

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