By TED CARTER
Millions of dollars will soon be on the way to the Mississippi Department of Transportation for a triage effort to repair state bridges that have been neglected to the point farmers and other commercial transporters can no longer use them.
MDOT’s three district commissioners must set the priorities for the repairs and spending of the $200 million legislators diverted from a casino tax fund in the final days of the session. It’s widely expected that a host of bridges along state highways 32 and 6 will be atop the fix list.
A dozen deficient bridges on Highway 6 from Clarksdale to Batesville are posted for far lower weights than normal, said state Sen. Willie Simmons, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and sponsor of a $400 million emergency bridge repair bill that died early in the session.
Commercial haulers have to go use alternate routes that have require considerably more travel than on their regular routes, say Simmons and members of the Delta Council’s transportation committee. The council joined with Simmons in pushing unsuccessfully for the $400 million allocation.
“When you look at the bridge situation in the state we’ve got a problem all over but it is more apparent in the Delta,” said Simmons, a Cleveland Democrat who has sought funding for the state’s backlog of road and bridge maintenance the past several years, including last year when he led a task force of legislators, state transportation officials and private- sector stakeholders.
The stop-gap money will be spent on bridges based on their condition, their use and the overall structural safety of the bridges, according to Simmons.
The 2016 legislative session is expected to bring a comprehensive fix for the state’s roads and bridges, including the first new funding since the 1987 adoption of the state’s 18 cents a gallon motor fuels tax. Legislators say they are awaiting proposals from a task force created by the Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber, and headed by Sanderson Farms CEO Joe Sanderson Jr.
Sanderson said any new revenue will come largely from users of the transportation system.
Simmons said a realization that bridges needed immediate attention led to the late-session decision to tap the casino tax fund for $36 million a year over 20 years to cover bond payments. “We heard all about waiting until next year,” he said. “But even the MEC… came out in support of the stop-gap measure.”
Legislators and business leaders knew that another year of delay would leave insufficient time for catching up on repairs to deteriorating bridges, Simmons noted.
“The 2016 session is too long to be tackling the problem.”
Lawmakers agreed after casinos opened to use that revenue stream for road projects to improve access to casinos. But with those projects completed and bonds mostly paid off, the money in recent years has been flowing to the state Department of Transportation to spend as it wants, the Associated Press reported last week.
Simmons said annual debt payments on the bonds for the bridge repairs will run about $15 million to $20 million. The rest, he said, can go each year for bridge repairs in Mississippi’s casino counties.
Legislators also allocated $20 million for local road & bridge aid, an amount that comes on top of $50 million allocated to counties and cities last year.
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