Home » MBJ FEATURE » MDOT commissioner: National group gets it ‘backwards’ on state’s spending on bridge upkeep

MDOT commissioner: National group gets it ‘backwards’ on state’s spending on bridge upkeep

Bridge-rgbBy TED CARTER

A national coalition of state-based consumer advocacy groups says a look at where Mississippi put its federal highway dollars from 2009 to 2011 showed it overwhelming prioritized building highways over taking care of existing roads and bridges.

The report from Smart Growth America tagged Mississippi as the state least likely to do road and bridge upkeep with Federal Highway Administration money from 2009 to 2011.

“Exactly backwards,” is how Dick Hall, Mississippi Department of Transportation Central District commissioner, assesses the coalition’s conclusion.

Mississippi has been spending vastly more of its total budget on repairs and maintenance the past several years, annual reports from the Mississippi Department of Transportation show, though the reports do show the largest increases came after the 2009-2011 period looked at by Smart Growth coalition member Public Interest Research Group.

MDOT Director Melinda L. McGrath said in the agency’s 2014 annual report that an absence of money for new construction has led the agency to prioritize maintenance over all else.

“In recent years, we shifted our focus and financial resources to preserving that infrastructure instead of new construction projects that would upgrade roadway capacity due to lack of funding,” McGrath said.

From today back through the years the coalition examined, federal dollars have made up roughly half of MDOT’s annual spending of slightly more than $1 billion annually. The federal government’s tendency to lump most any work done on a highway or bridge –, for example, repaving, widening a lane or repairing a shoulder – accounts for a lot of the repair and maintenance work getting reported to the Federal Highway Administration as new construction, Hall said.

“They’ve got it exactly backwards,” Hall said of the report’s conclusion that only 3 percent of MDOT’s total budget in the three-year period went to repairs and upkeep.

“We’re spending our money on maintenance. For purposes of federal reporting, it is reported as new construction,” he said.

In many instances, MDOT is essentially rebuilding a crumbling highway, Hall added.

The coalition said it based its 3 percent figure for the 2009-2011 period on spending of $603 million in federal money on new construction and $16 million on maintenance.

The 97 percent allocation for new roads over repairs and preservation of existing roads and bridges “makes Mississippi the worst in the country percentagewise,” John Olivieri, the Public Interest Research Group’s 21st Century Transportation campaign director, said in an interview last week.

“The closest state would be Washington at 84 percent.”

In the same three years, according to the report:

» Alabama spent 55 percent of its federal highway dollars on maintenance;

» Arkansas 32 percent;

» Louisiana 38 percent;

» Tennessee 28 percent.

Smart Growth America, citing the Public Interest Research Group’s work, said Mississippi’s tendency to allocate federal dollars to new construction came at a time the Federal Highway Administration deemed 13 out of every 100 bridges in Mississippi structurally deficient.

“The increase in the number of structurally deficient bridges across Mississippi highlights skewed spending priorities” Olivieri said.

Mississippi and a handful of other states have 2,200 or more structurally unsound bridges, according to Olivieri.

Smart Growth America, whose work is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, said a preference for new over fixing the old is not isolated to Mississippi.

According to the Repair Priorities 2014 report:

“Between 2009 and 2011, the latest year with available data, states collectively spent $20.4 billion annually to build new roadways and add lanes to existing roads. America’s state-owned road network grew by 8,822 lane-miles of road during that time, accounting for less than 1 percent of the total in 2011.

MDOT’s annual reports from 2013 to the present show the state spent far more doing fixups than new construction.

Expenditure reports for fiscal 2014 show that 61 percent of highway spending went toward infrastructure repair and routine maintenance.

For fiscal 2013 highway system expenditures, 63 percent went for infrastructure repair and routine maintenance activities and 27 percent for new capacity and system expansion projects, the annual report for that year shows. Expenditures for 2013 marked the start of the escalation of maintenance and repair spending.

For 2012, the percentage of total funds came to only 10.7 percent, according to that year’s report.

The 2010 Legislature authorized $160 million in general obligation bonds for road and bridge projects prioritized in Vision 21, a highway construction program initiated in 2002 to upgrade existing highways or build new highways where they are needed.

The 2010 bond money enabled MDOT to begin construction on several road and bridge projects in FY 2011, which raised the percentage of projects designated as new construction and led to 15.4 percent of the total budget classified as going to maintenance.

Looking ahead, MDOT’s fiscal 2015 budget allocates 74 percent of all construction spending on infrastructure maintenance and limits new construction to 5 percent of the total. A budget for fiscal 2016 proposes 71 percent of spending to go toward infrastructure upkeep and 8 percent to new construction, according to Hall, the Central District commissioner.

A 2014 report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) details the challenge ahead for MDOT’s bridge repair and upkeep efforts in the years ahead. “MDOT allocates from $50 million to $80 million annually to bridge projects, but estimates that $2.7 billion would be needed to repair or replace bridges and $200 million annually would enable replacement of all currently deficient bridges in a timely manner and guarantee maintenance and repair of all bridges in the state system,” the PEER report to legislators said.

Even in 2010 – a year included in the Smart Growth America study — Mississippi performed better than the national average on bridge conditions, according to PEER.

And from 1992 to 2010, Mississippi showed more progress than its contiguous states in decreasing its percentage of deficient bridges, the PEER report said.

In its analysis, Smart Growth America blames flawed projections by the Federal Highway Administration for significant increases in motorist use in the years ahead for the priority states placed on new highway construction. Those projections have been debunked, the coalition’s Olivieri said.

“They just very quietly admitted those estimates are wrong,” he said. “They have very quietly revised down their highway driving projections.”



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About Ted Carter