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What now? Task force offers no answers to road/bridge issue

bridge_rgbLast week, the Mississippi Senate task force that began work last year charged with coming up with funding alternatives to repair the state’s roads and bridges wrapped up its work without offering any solutions.

In the summary of its report, the task force noted that the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) identified road and bridge maintenance as a high priority, and more important than new capacity or construction, but committee members “could not reach an agreement… (to) develop a strategy for addressing the need.”

The task force did offer recommendations. It is pushing for the creation of a Joint Committee on Highway, Bridge, and Local Road Assistance Funding. It also said, following a supporting PEER study, that MDOT should improve its accountability system, make recommendations to the Mississippi Legislature aimed at helping local governments meet bridge and road replacement funding needs and report to the 2015 Legislature “on the feasibility of heavy corridors and toll corridors for accommodating truck transportation with higher than currently allowed weight.”

While the task force did not identify a plan to move the state from the 18¢-per-gallon of gasoline road and bridge maintenance formula established back in 1987, sources interviewed for this story said generally they were pleased that the group had raised the issue and opened dialogue. Hopes are that the task force’s work will lead to answers for funding in the near future.

“When Arkansas began looking at their roads and bridges, they didn’t come up with an answer in one summer,” said Mark Leggett, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, which has been lobbying for more funding. He said Simmons should be applauded for his efforts, and he sees the task force’s work as productive and potentially leading toward a solution. Leggett said one key result was the aforementioned joint committee.

“The other real plus is that the case was made that city- and county-owned roads and bridges are part of the state’s total transportation system,” he said. Leggett added that Mississippians don’t care who owns the roads and bridges — they simply want them to be safe and reliable — and that if city- and/or county-owned roads and bridges are defective, it impacts the state’s whole transportation system.

Others echoed Leggett’s take on the merits of the task force’s work.

Mike Pepper, who leads the Mississippi Road Builders Association in Jackson, said, “I have heard both parties, Republican and Democrat, have this issue as one of their 2014 Legislative session priorities — to fund roads and bridges.

“Even though we have heard a few of the legislative leaders stance on raising the fuel user fee, no other options outside of raising the user fee have been suggested yet. That is where I hope other options will start being discussed among legislative leaders.

“Facts remain such as the 1987 funding mechanism is outdated, construction cost have increased dramatically during that time period, plus with more fuel efficient and alternative fueled vehicles the fuel user fee collections are declining.”

One group lobbying for more money is the T1 Coalition, led by former legislator Charlie Williams, and Williams said they have crafted a three-year short-term plan for raising funds. The coalition’s plan also lacks definitive funding sources, though Williams said that could come from new Internet sales tax or BP settlement money. User fees also are a possibility but there is “not much appetite” for that as officials begin readying for the 2015 election year, he added.

Williams said the three-year plan would ensure that the state’s roads and bridges do not fall into total disrepair between now and 2016, and gives lawmakers time to draft “more substantive and permanent” funding solutions.

Past the three years, the T1 Coalition is recommending a 10-year program for more permanent solutions.

Williams said the task force began momentum toward answers, and he feels “pretty good” that at least a gap measure will be enacted this year.

Timing is certainly crucial in not only the area of future costs, but also public safety, according to Pepper.

“The big question is what is the ‘cost of waiting,’ because over time our road and bridge problems will just compound in severity,” he said.



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