Alison Premo Black tells road builders ‘Congress must act’

by Wally Northway

Published: December 6,2013

Tags: Business, highways, Legislature, Mississippi, roads

roadtripDuring the ongoing debate over adequate funding for road and bridge maintenance here in Mississippi, the state’s road builders have pointed to other states and their success in addressing funding shortfalls. The Mississippi Road Builders Association has been asking — if they can do it, why not the Magnolia State?

At its Membership Luncheon held last week in Jackson, the MRBA brought in an official who perhaps is most able to address that question.

Alison Premo Black, chief economist with the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), was the featured speaker at the event that drew approximately 160 attendees. Black, who joined ARTBA in 2000 as a research economist, was promoted to senior economist last January. She manages all staff activities in the association’s economics program and is responsible for numerous studies examining national and state transportation funding and investment patterns, including a landmark economic profile of the transportation construction industry.

Black offered statistics showing the importance of construction to Mississippi ($1.4 billion economic impact, 37,053 full-time equivalent jobs), and pointed out that practically every other state in the U.S. faced the same issues as here in Mississippi.

Giving her forecast for 2014, Black predicted growing public-private partnerships, a shift from road to bridge work and more state and local funding initiatives, among others.

The uncertainty, Black said, remains largely on the federal side. What will happen in Washington concerning the Highway Trust Fund, and will how actions there affect the states?

“Will state DOTs be conservative” when awarding funding, she asked? “Congress simply must act,” she added.

Black said the recent push by the Obama administration to increase transportation infrastructure spending is a plus — a good gauge of the political will in D.C. to spend on roads and bridges. She said that if the $50-billion initiative had floundered, it would almost certainly mean nothing would happen next year in new transportation-related appropriations.

Black’s words come as the state continues to wrestle with adequate funding for road and bridge maintenance. At the heart of the issue is the funding mechanism set in 1987 at 18 cents per gallon of fuel. As construction costs have escalated and the number of vehicles on the road has increased, the state has run short of money for maintaining the state’s roads and bridges. A Mississippi Senate committee, led by Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, is currently studying the problem, and proposed a $700-million tax levy earlier this year. However, proposing a new highway tax is a political hot potato that has met with significant opposition, particularly from conservatives. And other proposals, such as taking a percentage of casino winnings for repairs, have gained little or no political traction.

Back in June, the Mississippi Business Journal published for the first time all of the questionable bridges in Mississippi per the National Bridge Inventory. The list included more than 2,000 bridges scattered across the state in both rural and urban areas that are the responsibility of county and local governments. (The NBI list does not include the 1,054 suspect state bridges — structures either closed or posted — that are maintained by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.)

Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall attended the MRBA luncheon, and said he doesn’t buy the theory that Mississippi’s conservative, GOP-controlled government means no possibility of a new funding mechanism. Hall pointed out that it was Republican President Ronald Reagan who signed a federal gasoline tax hike in 1983.

Hall added as electric/hybrid vehicles become more popular, hurting gasoline tax revenue, and construction costs continue to rise (up roughly 300 percent since the 1987 state legislation was enacted) that the state is simply finding itself deeper and deeper in a hole when it comes to road and bridge work.

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