Road commissioner open to options other than increasing pump prices

Mississippi’s tax on a gallon of gasoline went from 15 cents to 18 cents in 1987 and has stayed that way ever since.

Of that 15 cents charged pre-1987, 6 cents was a sales tax that was dropped and replaced by an additional 9 cents on the gallon gasoline tax, said Dick Hall, a member of the state House in 1987 and current central district commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

“At the time we were trying to make it an even swap,” he said, with the goal being to have a dedicated revenue source for building and maintaining a state highway network.

Of the 15 cents paid at the pump, six cents went to the state’s general fund and could be put to a variety of uses other than roads and bridges. The change to a dedicated source of funds, which also included a $5 car tag charge, set off years of road building that eventually connected most every part of the state by four-lane highway.

The highway network became the envy of other Mid-South states, though they have since adopted highway trust funds of their own and are funding them with per-gallon taxes higher than Mississippi’s, according to Hall. Alabama is charging 21 cents a gallon, Arkansas 21.8 cents and Tennessee 21,4 cents, he said.

Hall said he thinks Mississippi should consider switching from a flat per-gallon charge to a percentage charge as a way to double the amount of money going into the highway trust fund. “The price of gas went up 46 cents since the first of June,” he said. “If we had put a penny on here we would have $22 million. A nickel would have gotten us over $100 million.”

Though the state’s politicians haven’t wanted to consider such a switch, Hall said he thinks Mississippians are willing to pay more for well-maintained roads. “I don’t think there’s as much opposition out there as people think.”

But having motorists pay more for each gallon of gas purchased is not the only option he is willing to explore, he said.

Hall’s “pay-as-you-go” philosophy would make it difficult for him to support a large bond issue for the work, though he accepts that borrowing at today’s low-cost could be the least expensive option. “By nature I just don’t want to do that,” he said.

Toll roads could be considered, he said, though he is unsure how that would fit in with a strategy more geared for maintenance than new construction.

Meanwhile, Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, said the state should be willing to look at options “other than revenue enhancements.”

He said the council, which serves as the state’s Chamber of Commerce, will soon examine “best practices” of other states for highway maintenance, including bonding pools. Its findings could be part of recommendations business leaders make to the state on ways to keep Mississippi economically competitive.

Mike Tagert, northern district MDOT commissioner, said he sees a “direct correlation between our needs and the Mississippi business community’s ability to provide jobs and move their products.”

The question is how do “we get there,” he said.

“We need to consider all the different resources out there — bonding projects, an infrastructure bank, federal programs that can supplement interest on bonds.”

Like Hall, he said he would not rule out tolls or some other highway commercialization mechanism.

Tagert said he does not think a higher assessment on gasoline purchases is necessary, however. He said he would want legislators to consider diverting money from the general treasury to supplement the highway maintenance budget before asking motorists to pay more at the pump.

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