Hall, a Republican who is in his fifth term on the three-member Transportation Commission, reiterated his plea last week at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia.
“When school starts next month, there will be buses making their way over bridges in the state in danger of failure,” he said.
Other elected officials now agree that additional funds are needed for Mississippi’s infrastructure both on the state and local level.
“The problem is real,” Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said during his fair speech on Wednesday. “The goal is one we all agree on – better roads and bridges.”
The problem, as it has been for several years, is reaching consensus on how to achieve those better roads and bridges. Gov. Phil Bryant told the fair crowd he is working on the issue.
“I like challenges,” Bryant told the fair crowd. “We are going to take them on one at a time, whether public education … whether infrastructure.
“We work hard because that is what Mississippians do every day. When we get up we go out to make Mississippi great one more day.”
Reeves, Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn all say they want to address the transportation issue, but cannot agree on a solution.
For Hall, he told the Neshoba County fair attendees the solution is fairly simple.
He said the tax on motor fuel “remains the fairest way to fund roads and bridges. User pays. Those using the highways pay for the highways. That includes those using from other states and passing through to somewhere else.”
He said every year the Legislature refuses to address the transportation problem it grows worse and more expense to fix. But the Legislature has been reluctant to increase the tax on motor fuel. And the leadership has not tried to convince legislators to change their mind.
Gunn reiterated his opposition to a tax increase on motor fuel in May at a luncheon meeting of the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government/capitol press corps luncheon.
Only three states have lower gasoline taxes than Mississippi’s 18.4-cent per gallon levy. Mississippi’s tax is lower than that of its neighboring states.
And Hall and other Mississippi Department of Transportation officials say the tax is generating essentially the same amount of money it did when it was enacted in 1987.
In the meantime, the amount of travel has doubled on state-maintained roadways and the cost of construction has tripled. The cost of materials for highway maintenance and construction has increased 463 percent since the 18.4-cent per gallon gasoline tax was enacted in 1987, Hall said.
“MDOT maintains 30,000 highway miles, and 11,000 miles need to be repaired or replaced,” Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert explained in a recent annual report. “And, approximately 900 of the 5,700 bridges MDOT maintains need to be reconstructed, because they have restrictions that hinder commercial traffic.”
The problem is only going to get worse unless a solution is found, Hall said.
Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood appears poised to make transportation an issue in his anticipated campaign for governor in 2019.
“We need our roads fixed,” he said at the Neshoba County Fair. “Everybody from business, everybody agrees to put some money on fuel and spread the tax around…
“That is the first, fundamental building block for economic development. If you don’t have good highways…”
Hood was referencing the Mississippi Economic Council that proposed spending an additional $375 million annually to improve the state’s transportation system. While the business group did not advocate specifically a method to pay for the program, it did offer options. The option that raised the most money and came closer to paying for the program was increasing the motor fuel tax.
While the legislative leadership has not embraced that solution, Reeves said, “I firmly believe we will find common-sense solutions that will work – and that we can agree on.”
In the meantime, Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall will continue to express his concerns about Mississippi’s roadways and bridges.