The Mississippi Department of Transportation’s primary focus has become “system preservation, rather than new construction,” according to a report released Tuesday by an oversight agency of the state Legislature.

The report by the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee of the Mississippi Legislature reiterates what Transportation officials have been saying for sometime – that because of lack of funds they have essentially postponed the construction of new four-lane highways as they work to maintain existing roadways.

During the recently completed 2018 legislative session, there were efforts to pass bills that would curtail efforts by MDOT to build new highways. MDOT officials said at the time they were focused on maintaining the existing transportation system and were not building many new roadways.

The PEER report was released during an ongoing effort by legislators to find additional funds for what most concede is a deteriorating transportation system.

According to the report, the DOT spent 86 percent of its revenue ($985.2 million) on construction and maintenance during the past fiscal year. The next highest expenditure was to pay off bonded indebtedness (debt incurred to finance construction projects) at $71.5 million or 6 percent of total revenue. Administration accounted for 4 percent of the agency’s expenditures while aeronautics and rail and law enforcement accounted for the rest.

In general, PEER, which often can issue blistering reports, praised the effort of the agency.

The Department of Transportation has taken steps, since a 2014 PEER report, to become more transparent, such as by placing searchable information online, PEER said in the report released Tuesday.

As the agency enacts new processes for reporting on projects and activities, it must ensure that safeguards are in place to keep the information in a usable form for the public and its stakeholders, the report warned.

The report also looked at the issue of the county bridges that have been closed for safety reasons. Many of the bridges were closed after federal officials demanded that the state inspect more than 1,000 locally owned bridges in a process that is ongoing.

The Federal Highway Administration mandated that state officials act to inspect the bridges after what was perceived to be inaction by the local governments. The report recommended, and the Department of Transportation agreed, that state officials should work with local governments to return inspection duties to them once the ongoing two year review by state officials is complete.

There are currently 542 locally owned bridges closed for safety reasons and more could be shut down in the coming days. Statewide there are more than 10,000 locally owned bridges.

The report acknowledged that transportation funding is an issue nationwide.

Based on the fiscal year 2017 budget, the Department of Transportation receives:

  • $514.4 million in federal funds.
  • $303.8 million from an 18.4-cent per gallon motor fuel tax.
  • $234.6 million from other state sources, such as a tax on contractors, license plates fees, bond proceeds and grants.
  • $68.6 million on truck and bus fees and taxes.

There have been ongoing efforts to provide additional funds for transportation, but no consensus has been reached on a plan to achieve that goal.

— Bobby Harrison / Daily Journal