Mississippi’s roads and bridges have reached crisis level, and Transportation Commissioner Tom King wants the Legislature’s help to fix them.
King said the Legislature is looking at cutting the transportation budget by about $50 million, but it needs about $400 million this year and in the coming years to be able to complete the projects in the pipeline. All told, the department needs an additional $3.2 billion over the next eight years.
At risk, King said, is the safety of the state’s motorists.
King said 677 people were killed on state roads in 2016, and he is concerned there will be more deaths if the roads aren’t improved.
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“Safety is MDOT’s No. 1 priority,” he said during a press conference Thursday in Hattiesburg. “But with the current level of funding, the state highway system will only continue to be neglected.
“This is no longer affecting only MDOT, it is now affecting economic development and community growth.”
King is urging the Legislature to consider raising the fuel tax or stepping up compliance of the state’s internet-sales tax. The Legislature already is considering these measures, but King wants legislators to earmark money for transportation.
He mentioned the user fees and toll roads Florida and other states use to fund its highways.
In late 2015, a task force was formed by the Mississippi Economic Council to create an infrastructure-funding plan that called for $375 million a year more in spending for roads and bridge repair and maintenance.
The report didn’t suggest one particular funding method but recommended lawmakers consider higher fuel taxes, license plate fees, rental car taxes or general sales taxes.
Officials said the recommendation for revenue was based upon sound research, not an arbitrary decision.
“We came to the best solution we could come up with,” MEC Vice President Scott Waller told The Clarion-Ledger in an earlier story.
Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath also expressed her concern.
“In order to save Mississippi’s transportation system, action must be taken today,” she said in a news release. “There has been no significant change in state revenue for roads and bridges since 1987.
“This has caused many Mississippi highways to crumble past the point of repair.”
King said MDOT maintains about 30,000 highway miles and 5,700 bridges. More than one-third of the highway miles and 16 percent of the bridges need to be repaired or replaced. More than 200 projects are on hold in South Mississippi alone.
“Most these projects will benefit rural communities,” he said. “But if we don’t get this funding these projects will never be done.”
In addition to unsafe roads, King said the department has been asked to look at making cuts to non-highway programs including welcome centers, rest areas and Keep Mississippi Beautiful.
Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree said he is concerned about the cuts to transportation, which could include the Safe Routes to Schools programs.
“There are a lot of projects that concern us,” he said. “I think we need to be talking about the fuel tax. I think we need to be talking about how we are going to do the internet tax. And how we are going to come up with other projects?”
King emphasized the road projects would improve commerce in South Mississippi, by widening roads in high-traffic areas, or improving rural areas to allow trucks where they are not currently allowed.
Some bridges are so dilapidated, the weight limits have been greatly reduced or the bridges have to be closed, forcing farmers and truckers to find alternate routes, driving up fuel costs.
“South Mississippi will not grow until roads are expanded and traffic is accommodated,” King said.
Area Development Partnership President Chad Newell said maintaining state and local roads and highways is of “paramount importance.”
“It would definitely enhance our economic development effort,” he said. “It helps us retain the jobs that we have and it helps show pride in our community and state.”
Having well-maintained and safe roads also helps with recruiting new businesses, Newell said.
“As we proactively recruit new companies from around the world it’s awesome to be able to say we’ve got suitable highways and byways and well-maintained roads and bridges,” he said.
“It is an economic development issue,” he said. “If you don’t maintain your streets and your roads and you don’t maintain your bridges, not only are they not safe, but businesses are not going to come here. So you’ve got to put money into the projects that elevate your state.”
Repairing the state’s failing roads and bridges is a priority for at least one local legislator.
Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Hattiesburg, told the Hattiesburg American in January he feels it is his responsibility to help the state’s farmers as chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
“One of the biggest things as far as the farmer goes are the bad roads and bridges,” he said. “We got most of those dangerous bridges on county roads.
“Farmers have got to go 10 to 20 miles out of their way to get to market.”
Hudson said while he has never been in favor of tax increases, he feels there is a need to push for a higher gasoline tax to repair dilapidated roads and bridges.
“But to do it, we’ve got to find some more money,” he said.