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Revving at right time? Road, bridge funding efforts gain traction

The Vicksburg Bridge on the Mississippi River

The Vicksburg Bridge on the Mississippi River

Last month, yet another group was in Mississippi raising the issue of the state’s crumbling roads and bridge and a lack of funding to repair them. TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based national transportation organization, held a news conference in Jackson, giving some of the same numbers and figures touted by other groups pushing for more road and bridge money.

And that is fine by Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association.

“It is just one more organization saying the same thing — we have a major issue and we have to face it,” Pepper said. “Momentum is building, and TRIP is another voice.”

Rocky Moretti, director of policy and research at TRIP, was on hand for the news conference.

“Our report shows that Mississippi is in better shape in some areas of transportation infrastructure than other states, and worse in some areas,” Moretti said. He added that it is a positive sign that momentum for change in funding is building in Mississippi, but is less optimistic about what might happen in the near future on the federal level.

“It is a dangerous game to speculate on that,” he said.

The TRIP report titled “Mississippi Transportation by the Numbers: Meeting the State’s Need for Safe and Efficient Mobility,” estimates that Mississippi roadways that lack some desirable safety features, have inadequate capacity to meet travel demands or have poor pavement conditions cost the state’s residents approximately $1.6 billion annually in the form of additional vehicle operating costs, lost time and wasted fuel due to traffic congestion and traffic crashes. Twenty-eight percent of Mississippi’s roads are either in poor or mediocre condition. Sixty-eight percent of Jackson-area major locally and state-maintained urban roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and in the Gulfport/Biloxi area, 46 percent of major urban roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

At the heart of the issue is the current state’s funding mechanism that was established back in 1987. It called for a flat 18¢ per gallon of gasoline to fund road and bridge maintenance. Since then, fuel costs have climbed with no corresponding funding increase, and more and more traffic on the state’s roads and bridges have left them in disrepair, many bridges having to be posted or closed.

Last year, the Mississippi Business Journal ran a list of thousands of bridges across the state that are listed as deficient in the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory.

That and other news stories began spurring discussions last year on the issue. At least one leader thinks the efforts in mid-2013 might have caused more harm than good.

Timing is a key factor, according to Charlie Williams, former lawmaker and president of the T1 Coalition, another organization that has joined the fight for more infrastructure funding.

Williams said efforts that began last summer and proposed to increase funding by raising taxes ($700 million) or using gaming money “scared everybody to death” and “everyone was hiring lobbyists.”

“We have to make sure we don’t get blown out of the water before the legislative session even begins,” Williams said.

With an election year looming, Williams is not sure that anything will happen this year, but is optimistic that efforts now will lead to results two or three years down the road.

For Rick Webster, the issue is less about big numbers and dollar signs and more about people. Head of Key Constructors, a Madison-based road-building firm that his father started, Webster sees faces, not figures.

“It has been tough,” said Webster, speaking of the historic downturn in road and bridge work. “We have had to cut back on benefits, put off any promotions and raises. We have not been hiring and have not filled positions when they became open. Fortunately, we have not had to lay off too many people.”

To survive, Key Constructors has gone after more private jobs than in the past. It means bidding more work to keep the doors open.

“We were bidding about 100 jobs a year (before the downturn). Now, we’re bidding more like 300 jobs a year,” Webster said, adding that over the last handful of years the cost of construction materials has skyrocketed.

He is also worried about public safety. He said recently Key Constructors was working a bridge project and one of his people went over to a nearby bridge and looked underneath out of curiosity. It was in startling bad condition, and it was reported so the bridge could be posted.

For Webster, the politics of the issue is frustrating. Some have pointed to Mississippi’s conservative leadership as a possible stumbling block to enacting legislation to find more road and bridge money.

Webster is not buying into that.

“Hey, I’m as conservative as they come, but we have an issue here,” Webster said. “What’s it going to take? A school bus running off into a creek? I certainly hope not.”



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