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Infrastructure debate: Two roads diverged

Russ Latino
Russ Latino

For two years, special interests in Jackson have quietly pushed for $375 million a year in tax increases for infrastructure. Publicly, proponents have chosen to focus generically on road condition instead of being open about their intention to increase taxes.

Most have also ignored a central point to the infrastructure debate: Mississippi has two distinct road systems, those that are state controlled and those that are locally controlled. The two systems have equally distinct funding and condition circumstances. This is significant, because under the primary plan floated, the lion’s share of new taxes ($300 million annually) would go to state-controlled roads. Local systems would take the crumbs.

So let’s get into the weeds. State-controlled interstates and highways, maintained by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, make up roughly 11,000 of the 77,000 total miles of Mississippi roads.

Despite claims to the contrary, MDOT funding has gone up dramatically since the gas tax was set in 1987 (this increase was supposed to be temporary). In 1988, MDOT spent $377 million. For fiscal year 2017, MDOT was appropriated $1.33 billion. Even accounting for inflation and population growth, that’s a massive increase. But what’s a billion dollars when you really want a few hundred million more?

Some proponents have played fast and loose with the condition of state-controlled roads, too. MDOT is required to periodically report data to the Federal Highway Administration on the condition of state roads using national measurement techniques. In its most recent submission, it reported Mississippi’s interstates and highways performed better than the national weighted average in every single condition category.

In fact, Mississippi’s state-controlled system earned a ranking of 10th best in the country from the Reason Foundation’s Highway Report, a publication that compiles the data submitted by state DOTs and one that has been characterized by the head of MDOT as a “well-respected, technical industry white paper.”

Other reports relied on by tax-increase proponents, such as TRIP — which was founded by the American Road Builders Association and is supported by labor unions — focus on safety records unrelated to road condition.

Now contrast that with local roads, which make up about 66,000 miles. The state provides limited assistance for about 19,000 miles through a program called “State Aid.” The condition of these locally controlled roads and bridges is a mixed bag, largely depending on where they are in the state.

Examples of why we should raise taxes by nearly $400 million have almost exclusively come out of this system — think about the frequent mention of Jackson potholes. Another example stems from the false reporting of 100 bridges being shut down by the federal government a couple of weeks ago.

The number of bridges implicated was 57, not 100. This represents roughly 0.3 percent of Mississippi’s total bridge inventory of 17,057 bridges. All of these bridges were on locally controlled roads. The vast majority have average daily traffic of less than 100.

This is true over the larger inventory of bridges, as well. With imagery of school buses crossing bridges, the public has been told 2,000 are “structurally deficient,” but only 37 of the national highway system bridges in Mississippi were classified that way in 2015.

Notably, Mississippi’s entire bridge inventory has improved. Context is key. In 1995, there were 5,415 structurally deficient bridges in Mississippi. In the 20 years that followed, Mississippi had 60 percent fewer structurally deficient bridges.

If we’re going to consider increasing the burden on taxpayers, we should have an honest debate. Those pushing tax increases should stop hiding what they are really seeking. Let’s cut out the emotional rhetoric and deal in whole truths. We can start by acknowledging two very different road systems and by trying to craft solutions that resolve actual need while protecting taxpayers.

Russ Latino is the state director of Americans for Prosperity Mississippi.

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