By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal
JACKSON – The Senate Transportation Committee has two days of hearings scheduled for Thursday and Friday for members to again hear about the poor condition of the state’s transportation system.
The final segment of the hearings, called by Senate Transportation Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, will be a discussion of possible solutions.
Thus far, finding a solution to deal with the state’s infrastructure needs has been difficult to ascertain. State officials have been grappling with the issue for about five years.
The legislative leadership, led by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, have rejected calls to raise the state’s 18.4-cent per gallon gas tax, one of the lowest in the nation, to provide additional funds for transportation needs.
Gunn has proposed using a portion of the 7 percent tax voluntarily collected by online retailers on the items they sell to provide funds for infrastructure needs. That source of revenue, though, would generate limited funds, far less than the $400 million annually a Mississippi Economic Council study said is needed to make the needed repairs to the state’s roads and bridges.
An example of the problems in reaching consensus on a revenue source for infrastructure is that the conservative Americans for Prosperity advocacy group conducted a statewide advertising campaign earlier this summer praising Reeves for blocking efforts to raise the gasoline tax and opposing efforts to try to force online retailers to collect the tax on the items they sell.
“This campaign is to let people know that Lt. Gov. Reeves lived up to his promise to protect taxpayers this year and to encourage him to keep doing so. We’re going to give credit where it’s due,” said Russ Latino, Mississippi director for Americans for Prosperity.
At this week’s hearing, Scott Waller, interim executive director of the Mississippi Economic Council, will speak of the economic impact of a deteriorating transportation system on the state’s economy.
Members of the Department of Transportation and local officials also will testify about both the statewide problems and the woes facing individual local governments.
Only five states have lower gasoline taxes than Mississippi’s 18.4-cent per gallon levy. Mississippi’s tax is lower than that of the four contiguous states. 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, according to Department of Transportation statistics.
“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.”