Mississippi Economic Council hopes to spell out state's transportation issues

JACKSON -- While much of the talk leading up to the 2016 session has centered on the possibility of legislators considering tax cuts, an effort to increase taxes might also be in the works.

Later this month -- on Dec. 18 -- the influential Mississippi Economic Council will release a transportation plan for the state. While little has been made public about the plan to this point, many believe additional revenue will be required to address the transportation and infrastructure needs expected to be cited in the MEC plan.

Scott Waller, executive vice president of MEC, said the goals are "to identify the problems and identify the options to address the problems. That is what we will be talking about on the 18th."

Some legislators believe to pay for the many transportation needs in the state -- both on the state and local levels -- will take additional revenue.

"There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to pay for this," said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. "We need a plan, and we need a way to pay for it."

Revenue needed

Holland said he envisions MEC, the state's chamber of commerce, playing the role of the citizen-led AHEAD (Advocating Highways for Economic Advance and Development). In 1987, AHEAD led to passage a program to four-lane more than 1,000 miles of highways and the creation of an 18.8-cent tax on each gallon of motor fuel, which remains the primary method of state funding for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

But the MEC study is expected to show, as other groups and studies have maintained, the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel is no longer a sufficient source of revenue to address all of the state and local transportation needs -- especially repairing or replacing substandard bridges.

"I don't know yet what the MEC plan is going to be," said Rep. Steve Massengill, R-Hickory Flat, vice chair of the House Transportation Committee. "But I think we need to worry about roads more than anything -- roads and bridges."

A task force created by the Mississippi Senate in the 2013 session concluded the state does not generate enough revenue to address the many transportation needs.

"We found information that supports the need to improve our roads and bridges, and we also found the need for more funds," said Senate Transportation Chair Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, at the time. "The question is, 'how do we come up with the revenue to address those needs?'"

That is what Simmons said he hopes the MEC report helps to do.

Growing problem

Simmons' final report completed in early 2014 found 25 percent or 20,000 miles of highways are in "very poor condition" and $400 million is needed annually for highway improvements, yet the state can only "commit $150 million annually for road repairs."

And in the area of bridges, the report concluded 1,054 of the state's 5,724 bridges are either posted (as in being dangerous) or are closed and $200 million is needed annually for bridge repair or replacement yet only $50 million is available.

Since the study's completion, the Legislature has issued bonds to finance some bridge repairs.

A major problem is the revenue generated by the 18.8-cent-per gallon motor fuel tax is not growing and has even produced less revenue in recent years. There are more people driving and more vehicles on the roads, but the cars and trucks are much more efficient, leaving less gasoline to tax. In some instances, the vehicles use such fuels as natural gas, which is taxed, but often the state might have problems in collecting the tax.

The use of more fuel-efficient cars will only grow in the state in the coming years. In other words, Simmons said revenue collections for transportation should be changed to keep up with improving technology regardless of whether more revenue is needed.

"If we don't do something, we will be in worse shape in the future than we are now," Simmons said.

The Senate report pointed out the motor fuel tax collections for fiscal year 2013 were $27 million, or 6.25 percent, lower than in fiscal year 2004.

And at the same time, the costs to do roadwork and to repair highways and bridges are increasing.

Whether three-fifths majorities can be garnered in the two legislative chambers to pass a plan that includes new taxes remains to be seen. The 1987 AHEAD program passed over a gubernatorial veto requiring a two-thirds majority.

"We got to put everything on the table and see what the options are," said Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford. "I think the Legislature needs to review what is done at the Department of Transportation. Look at that first and go from there.

"Is money being put where it needs to be put?"