Based on that calculation, the state’s current 18.4 cent per gallon motor fuel tax would have to be more than doubled to generate the $400 million annually Department of Transportation officials and others say is needed to address the state’s road and bridge needs.
Talk of efforts to find a way to provide additional funds for the road and bridge needs came to the forefront again last week with the revelation that Dean Kirby, an influential Rankin County Republican senator, was planning to file legislation in the 2018 session to hold a statewide vote on whether to increase fees and taxes for specific transportation projects.
While still in the early stages, it appears Kirby is proposing to increase the motor fuel tax by about 1.5 cents per gallon and add fees on electric and hybrid cars and tire purchases. It is unclear how much revenue the plan would produce.
And at this point, the specifics of the plan might be a moot point since it could be altered in the legislative process should enough members opt to pursue the statewide referendum.
If the Legislature does decide to have a statewide vote on whether to increase taxes and fees for infrastructure needs, Senate Transportation Chair Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said it’s important to present a plan that would produce enough revenue to make a difference.
He cited what he said was the dissatisfaction of voters in Jackson who were given an opportunity to vote on a 1 cent sale tax increase to address infrastructure needs within the city. Voters overwhelmingly approved the increase, but are dissatisfied now, Simmons said, because it is not generating enough revenue to address all the needs.
“If the plan doesn’t fix the problem, that could create a problem with the public going forward,” Simmons said recently. “If you are going to undertake such a plan, we need to step up and do what needs to be done.”
Last year, the House leaders tried unsuccessfully to pass some legislation that would have generated money for transportation needs, but their efforts would have produced funds far short of what Department of Transportation officials and others said are needed.
“My biggest fear is that something will be thrown together that will be insufficient to really handle the problems,” Commissioner Hall said recently. “The state Legislature may do as (the U.S.) Congress did a couple of years ago when they claimed that they had taken action, but did so little that nobody can remember what they did.”
In December 2015, the Mississippi Economic Council, after commissioning studies by Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi, proposed Excelerate Mississippi – a plan to spend $375 million annually on transportation needs, $300 on the state level and $75 million on the local level.
The $400 million annually the Department of Transportation says it needs in additional funds does not include funds to deal with local infrastructure needs. Still, transportation officials endorsed the MEC plan, saying it would go a long way in solving the state’s problems.
At the time, MEC officials said their plan would:
- Replace 138 state bridges that can no longer carry the weight they were designed to carry.
- Replace all timber bridges.
- Replace another 424 deficient bridges over a 10-year period.
- Allow the Department of Transportation to greatly enhance its maintenance program.
- Help local officials with their infrastructure needs.
MEC did not advocate any specific way to pay for its plan but did offer a number of different funding options. But the most conversation has centered around increasing the tax on motor fuel, which already is the primary source of state funding for the Department of Transportation.
But revenue from the motor fuel tax, primarily on gasoline, is not a growing source of revenue. A 2014 study by the Senate Transportation Committee revealed, for instance, that in fiscal year 2004 the tax generated $436.8 million in revenue. That amount had dipped to $409.5 million in fiscal year 2013 and has generally been on a downward trend over a long period of time as vehicles have become more energy efficient
On the other hand, costs for transportation construction and maintenance have skyrocketed. The cost of items such as dirt, steel, asphalt and other raw materials needed for transportation has increased more than 450 percent since the current 18.4 cent per gallon motor fuel tax was imposed in 1987.
“When some of my friends in the Legislature run for office, they talk about how they want state government to be run as a business,” Hall said. “You tell me of any business that can be successfully managed with a cost of materials increase in excess of 450 percent and an income restriction that was set 30 years ago?”
Most in the Legislature concede more funds are needed for transportation, but cannot agree on a funding source – hence the Kirby statewide vote proposal.
Still, there are those who question the efficiency of the Department of Transportation.
Lt. Gov Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, said last week that “the first step” is for the Department of Transportation “to more efficiently manage the more than $7 billion the Legislature has spent on roads and bridges over the past six years. If voters were to vote to increase funding, there should be detailed plans on how to spend the money on projects that are necessary to grow our economy.”
Hall cites various studies that he says indicate the agency is run efficiently.