The newest and youngest member of the Mississippi Transportation Commission, Northern District Commissioner Mike Tagert of Starkville has been on a unique learning curve since he joined commission after winning a special election in early February.
“There are a lot of projects on the table, and I inherited a budget in mid process,” said Tagert. “I am simply trying to plug in and be of help. What I would truly like to see is a very vital and close relationship between the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). Transportation is always one of the vital core components of any economic development project, and is what prospects look at when they come to Mississippi. I hope to find ways to work with MDA to make sure we as a transportation agency are making decisions about policy in a way that we can help future economic development.”
Tagert has experience in using transportation to enhance economic development. Prior to being elected, he was administrator for the Tennessee-Tombigbee (Tenn-Tom) Waterway Development Authority, which has seen some of the state’s largest economic development projects in recent years. He was also president of the Tenn-Tom Development Council, where he led economic development.
Some highlights of his tenure there include signing an International Agreement with the Panama Canal Authority to promote future trade and transportation via the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi. He also worked to establish the designation of the Marine Highway (M-65) Corridor. He currently serves as a member of the Trade and Transportation Advisory Council for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
The U.S. Marine Corps veteran also has the benefit of advanced degrees helpful in his current position. After receiving a B.S. from Millsaps, he went on to receive master of science and master of public policy and administration degrees from Mississippi State University.
Promoting a strong intermodal transportation system in the state is a primary focus of the new commissioner.
“In my previous professional life I worked with inland waterborne transportation, I worked with blue water ports on the Gulf to promote the use of waterborne transportation, and I worked for full utilization of rail and airports,” Tagert said. “There is a lot of potential for Mississippi to take advantage of the navigable waters on the east side of the state with the Tenn-Tom, the west side of the state with the Mississippi River and the Gulf to the south. That is something that is important to me, and something I would like MDOT to facilitate when it is applicable. There is some opportunity there, and we would like to be a part of that.”
While it is a slower form of transportation best suited to bulk or aggregate materials, when it can be used waterborne transportation is the least expensive and most energy efficient way to move goods. Tagert said if a company’s business model allows the time to use barge transportation, it not only saves money, but also diverts trucking traffic from congested highways.
One of the biggest issues facing MDOT is the agency’s income has remained roughly the same since 1989, while the state has added 1,400 miles of four-lane roads in the state.
“When you add that kind of mileage to your system, it is a challenge to maintain it,” Tagert said. “We have been operating on roughly the same amount of money for the past 20-plus years. We have more to maintain and the maintenance costs have gone up tremendously. The challenge is to find new and creative ways to continue to maintain what we have. The department has made some headway in that area.”
An opponent of increasing taxes in today’s economy, Tagert said the answer is to do more with less: be creative, buckle down, and prioritize how to use maintenance and safety funds.
A recent development in the northern part of the state is the announcement by the Grenada Railway, LLC, of its intention to abandon 83 miles of railroad between Grenada and Canton. Tagert said there could be a negative impact on some industries along the route if they must find another way to transport raw materials and products.
“While the railroad is privately owned and operated, we have petitioned the company to reconsider,” Tagert said. “We have asked the federal Surface Transportation Board if they would permit a public discussion of the abandonment of the railroad so all affected communities would have an opportunity to discuss the options. Railroads are, of course, vital economic development tools and we don’t want to lose that opportunity if at all possible.”
Another major project in the northern part of the state is the proposed NAFTA Superhighway (Interstate 69).
“We are many years away from seeing a lot of significant construction as it relates to the Mississippi Delta,” Tagert said. “But an international interstate commerce route such as this will be important for generations to come. It will be a vital roadway direct connection to Mexico and Canada. It is a great project, but these things take a lot of planning. It is fortunate Mississippi is included in this.”
It takes at least two votes to accomplish something on the transportation commission, which in the past has had its share of clashes between commissioners. So far Tagert has shown sign of being a team player.
“He is intelligent, capable, and a quick learner,” said Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown. “He reminds me of scripture President Johnson used to quote, ‘Come, let us reason together.’ I like the idea that we can reason with him. I’ve only voted different with him on one vote since he has been there.”
Tagert and his wife, the former Mary Love Mortimer of Kilmichael, have two children, Frances and Harlan, and are members of the First United Methodist Church. Tagert said time with their young children is their first priority, and that the family loves college football.
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