Road building chief frustrated by lack of highway funds

ROADSMike Pepper had just stepped out of a meeting during yet another long legislative session. The frustration was evident in his voice.

It hasn’t been very fun being executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders’ Association lately. Pepper has watched a wobbly economy and dwindling state funding rob his members of work.

So, he almost scoffed when asked if he had seen the numbers from the U.S. Department of Commerce showing nonresidential construction spending was up in February, and the road/street sector saw the second-highest month-over-month gain among the 16 construction sectors.

“I’ve heard people talking — it’s come up in meetings,” Pepper said, “but we’re not seeing it here in Mississippi. My members aren’t seeing it, I can tell you that.

“Perhaps the good news is that we’re holding steady. At least we’re not still in a decline. But to be quite honest about it, we can’t go down any farther — there’s nowhere to go but up from here. We simply must have better funding.”

The state’s road builders have been asking legislators for increased funding, maintaining that the fuel tax assessment passed in the 1987 highway bill is inadequate. And they are not alone.

Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall has said repeatedly that the bill’s 18-cent fuel tax made short-term political sense, but is not meeting the maintenance needs of the state’s transportation infrastructure. That 18 cents is worth about a dime today, Hall told the MBJ.

“Back then, gas cost a dollar,” Hall said. “If we had made it a percentage we would not have this problem now.”

Unfortunately for road builders, two bills that would have offered alternative funding did not make it to the governor’s desk. In fact, neither even made it out of committee.

For Pepper, it means another bad year for his members.

“I don’t understand it,” he said. The fact that the tax-unfriendly GOP controls Mississippi is not an excuse, either, he added. “Other states with GOP leadership have changed their funding mechanisms; they’ve found a way to get it done. Why haven’t we done anything?”

Pepper pointed to many states as example, including Virginia where highway funding was increased partially by sales tax.

“I’m not advocating anything that radical,” Pepper said. “But, it does show that state’s are finding creative ways of funding highway and street projects. Mississippi has a reputation for being reactive. Maybe our leaders will see what these other states are doing and come up with something.

“I wonder where the business community is on this. I have just one question for them. Are you happy with your infrastructure? That’s it — all I want to know. If the answer is no, then speak up.”

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