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MEC transportation task force on track to wrap up work in late fall

By TED CARTER

Congress’ failure to renew federal highway funding beyond the next three months is not expected to keep a Mississippi Economic Council transportation task force from delivering an assessment of the state’s transportation needs and how to pay for them.

Supporters of decreasing the state’s $2 billion road & bridge maintenance backlog are counting on the task force’s assessment and recommendations to be the catalyst for the first changes since 1987 in the way the state funds its building and maintaining of roads and bridges.

The chair of the committee, Sanderson Farms CEO & Chairman Joe Sanderson, has said he expects the final proposal will call for a combination of new or increased user fees and a new motor fuels tax,

Congress’ inability to approve a multi-year highway bill should not delay the study panel’s goal of presenting its transportation blueprint in mid November, said Blake Wilson, CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber of commerce.

The task force, he said, is working independently of anything occurring in Washington.

Blake said that in deciding proportionate shares of road and bridge spending, the task force is “factoring-in that things will stay as they are” at the federal level.

The 15-member MEC panel, known officially as the Blueprint Transportation/Infrastructure Task Force, is made up of business leaders from around the state. It has received key research from Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi that defines the state’s transportation problems and examines how other states have addressed transportation shortcomings.

The research is getting a once-over from transportation consulting firm Cambridge Systematics, which Wilson says has worked throughout the multi-state region and can add extra knowledge of things other states are doing.

“We are right on schedule” for a November delivery, Wilson said. “It’s been an interesting process. We’re pretty satisfied with what we are getting.”

The variety of ideas on transportation policy and how to pay to fix crumbling highways and sagging bridges was very much evident during the Mississippi Economic Council’s road show stops around the state earlier this year, according to Wilson, who witnessed the intensity of the views first hand.  “A lot of different factions are interested in this subject for a lot of good reasons,” he said. “As the need increases, people become that much more frantic.”

Some parts of the state want better roads while others push for both roads and bridges as priorities. Bridges, though, sit atop “the Hit Parade most everywhere you go,” Wilson said.

The statewide assessment under way and the recommendations the task force makes will also address the enormous backlog of work needed on roads and bridges maintained by counties and municipalities.

Local roads and bridges, transportation officials say, account for 65 percent to 75 percent of Mississippi’s publicly maintained roads and bridges. Most of the vehicle traffic, however, is on state maintained roads and bridges.

By the time the MEC goes on its next road show of 20 cities, the task force will have presented its findings and proposals, including a breakdown of yearly spending on the transportation backlog, Wilson said.

A 2013 report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, concluded state funding had fallen far behind road and bridge maintenance needs since passage of 27 years ago of an 18.8 cents a gallon gasoline tax and a program that built 1,807 miles of four-lane highways.

PEER said Mississippi would need to spend an extra $400 million a year just to keep roads and bridges from getting worse

In the decades since adoption of the fuel tax, Mississippi has gone from having one of the top highway systems in the South to one with a $2 billion backlog of road and bridge needs, said Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall in a 2013 interview in which he bemoaned the inattention to wear and tear along the highways.

“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,” he said in the previous interview.

PEER’s 2013 needs assessment deemed the state’s 18.8 cents a gallon tax on motor fuels, in place since 1987, antiquated as vehicles have become far more fuel efficient in recent decades.

MEC task force chair Sanderson, whose poultry company runs more-than 500 tractor-trailers throughout its multi-state operation, said upon creation of the task force late last year that further delays in tackling transportation needs “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.

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