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State's struggling road builders conflicted by study committee

Late in the last legislative session, state lawmakers approved a resolution to form a study committee to look into the issue of funding for road and bridge work. It seemed that Mississippi’s struggling road builders had finally caught a break.

But now local roadbuilders are wondering if the study is a positive step or not after learning they will not have a seat at the table.

Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association, chose his words carefully.

roadtrip“Is it good that we’re at least talking about funding road and bridge projects in this state — absolutely,” he said. “Any, dialogue, any debate, is a good thing at this point. But, the road builders aren’t on the committee. We have been advocating for a new funding mechanism for years now, and we’re not invited to participate. I find that funny.”

He did not laugh.

“I understood we would be on the committee,” Pepper added. “Obviously, that’s not going to happen, and I don’t know why. I understand the committee is going to meet next month, but I have not received anything officially.”

For the struggling roadbuilders, this is a bitter development considering the committee is the result of all their efforts during the last session of the Legislature.

The session started with promise in the House, with House Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Robert Johnson introducing a funding proposal built on a flat tax on fuel early in the session. After being double referred, it failed in the House Ways and Means Committee.

There was little transportation-related activity in the Senate other than a plan to take casino payouts to fund road and bridge projects, which was never debated.

It was in the last days of the session that the study committee resolution was introduced and adopted. It called for a 19-member body drawn from private entities, state agencies and state senators. Its findings will be presented to the entire Legislature next session.

Pepper pointed to allied groups that are on the committee, such as the Mississippi Economic Council, which he feels gives the MRBA at least indirect representation.

“We’ll still be on the committee,” he said.

Just as roadbuilders are riding in the median on the study committee, they also face conflict in several key areas of their public/governmental relations efforts. They are:

» Getting the message out that maintaining roads and bridges is less expensive than waiting until they are beyond repair and building new ones. While Mississippi’s transportation infrastructure currently ranks well compared to other states, funding is needed now to keep it operating efficiently.

» Getting the message out that Mississippi roadbuilders are important not only to their communities, but also are more vital to the overall construction industry than in other states. Numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show roadbuilding represents 12.6 percent of the state’s total construction activity, compared to the national average of 6.7 percent.

» Getting the message out that part of the roadbuilders’ mission is public safety, and that there is nothing wrong with lobbying for transportation funding.

“When there is public education funding issues in the Legislature, who is in the balcony (at the Capitol)? School superintendents,” Pepper said. “When there is higher education legislation being debated, who is in the balcony? University presidents. Why is it okay for them to lobby and not us? We have a public-good mission, as well.

“We have to do a better job at PR.”

Pepper said Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall’s recent speaking engagements illustrate the conflict. He begins by talking about how good Mississippi’s transportation infrastructure is — principally due to the 1987 highway program — and ends by saying the system is in trouble and needs funding.

The root of the issue is the 1987 highway program’s myopic funding mechanism, based on an 18-cent fuel tax. As gasoline prices have risen and vehicle fuel mileage has improved, the state has been left with relatively less and less money for road and bridge work.

The roadbuilders refuse to buy that tax-conservative Republicans in control of most of state government preclude any solutions to highway funding. Pepper has kept a running tally of states, many controlled by the GOP, which have at least debated road/bridge funding.

Still, highway funding has been a tough sell as the state’s economy struggles to recovery and the price tag on work rises. Pepper points out a 1-cent fuel tax increase would generate $200-$220 million. However, that would barely cover the cost of two highway construction projects currently underway in Central Mississippi, each ringing in at roughly $90 million apiece.

Roadbuilders are concerned that nothing will be done until there is a tragedy such as the deadly Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 or the Interstate 5 bridge collapse in Seattle last week.

“I hope that’s not the way it happens,” said Pepper in an interview before the I-5 collapse happened. “Let’s hope it doesn’t take a tragedy to realize we have a serious problem with our roads and bridges, and they need work now.”



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