Urging Mississippi lawmakers to provide more infrastructure funding, a county engineer warned Thursday that a stiffened federal inspection program could force repairs or the closure of hundreds of county bridges across the state in the next two years.
Jeff Dungan, whose company is the county engineer for six south Mississippi counties, told the Senate Transportation Committee Thursday that federal inspectors are targeting more than 2,000 county bridges across the state with wood supports.
He said inspectors closed 64 of the first 120 bridges they examined, although some of those have since been repaired and reopened.
The news came as lawmakers reopened discussions over whether they should raise taxes to provide more money for roads and bridges.
Some Republicans bristled at federal interference, saying county engineers who are allowing bridges to stay open are doing just fine. State Sen. Billy Hudson, a Hattiesburg Republican, asked whether the Mississippi Department of Transportation called in federal officials.
“Did MDOT invite them in to put pressure on us to fund this?” Hudson asked. “Why do we got the federal government on a county road?”
Transportation Department Executive Director Melinda McGrath said the Federal Highway Administration initiated the move.
Lawmakers have been discussing transportation needs for years, including a 2013 proposal by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, a Cleveland Democrat, to increase revenue by $700 million.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation has said it needs another $526 million a year to prevent deterioration of state highways and bridges. The Mississippi Economic Council last year proposed raising an additional $375 million per year.
Simmons on Thursday provided one proposal that would raise $358 million in taxes, including a 7-cent-per-gallon increase in fuel taxes that would raise $164 million a year, plus $80 million a year from a state lottery and $58 million a year from increased cigarette taxes.
Simmons said he wanted to provide options for lawmakers to consider in the coming months.
Efforts to raise fuel taxes have foundered in the Legislature because of Republican opposition. A House effort to devote possible taxes on internet sales to transportation roiled the regular session this year, but produced no new money and ended up killing bond money that would have gone to county bridges.
Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves continues to stake out a no-new-taxes position, emphasizing efficiency in roadbuilding.
“Lt. Gov. Reeves believes we should direct more money to maintenance and repairs, and he believes we can do so without raising the gas tax and without implementing an illegal tax on Internet sales,” Reeves spokeswoman Laura Hipp said in a statement Thursday.
Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory and some other Democrats last year proposed repealing $415 million in tax cuts that are being phased in over 12 years. That includes eliminating the state’s $260 million-a-year franchise tax on business capital, a long-held goal of business groups. Bryan on Thursday criticized interim Mississippi Economic Council President Scott Waller for the group’s support of tax cuts.
“It seems to me that what MEC is really supporting is shifting taxation from the wealthy to the working folks, and highways are just misdirection,” Bryan said.