MEC, Hall right in call for initiative
By Sid Salter
The Mississippi Economic Council is spot-on in its assessment of the absolute necessity taking action to salvage Mississippi’s crumbling highway and bridge infrastructure with a sensible, sustainable program of repair and maintenance for both state-owned and local assets.
MEC says Mississippi needs $375 million in annual maintenance and repair funds just to maintain Mississippi’s existing road and bridge infrastructure. Their study points to the need to replace 138 state posted bridges, all timber bridges, and then another 424 deficient state bridges over the next decade.
The state’s “chamber of commerce, MEC, is a business group with an enviable track record of advocating positive public policy initiatives that have long-term impacts and that pay long-term benefits. What I like about MEC is that they take a “show me” approach to formulating their public policy recommendations.
MEC does research without preconceived notions. They ask hard questions about hard topics. And, if warranted, MEC makes courageous and unpopular policy recommendations including calling for higher taxes when public policy issues dictate.
Such is the case with the MEC Blueprint Mississippi Transportation Infrastructure Task Force. The long and short of their study of Mississippi road and bridge problems came to these two observation: First, between 1980 and 2000, Mississippi spent $3.3 billion building some 1,077 miles of four-lane highways but funded that construction with no money provided for maintenance and repair.
Second, state road funds are generated by a flat tax. Mississippi’s 18.4 cents per gallon state gas tax (CPG) is a flat tax. When we paid $3.965 a gallon for gas in 2008, the tax was 18.4 CPG. When we pay $1.72 per gallon at the pump this week, the state tax is still 18.4 CPG. The only way the state takes in more revenue in gas taxes is for the volume of gas consumed to increase.
Joe F. Sanderson, chairman and CEO of Sanderson Farms, chaired the task force and summed up the problem succinctly: “Roads across our state are beginning to crumble. Bridges aren’t safe. This is happening on our state-owned system — as well as with our local roads and bridges.”
The study didn’t advocate a specific funding strategy, but noted several funding possibilities, including raising the state’s gas tax, raising car tag prices incrementally, a general sales tax increase, levying a sales tax on gas and diesel fuel, or an excise tax on rental cars.
Republican Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, a conservative if ever one served in Mississippi state government and a former lawmaker, has led the charge on state government facing up to the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges and the need to reverse that trend before it becomes even more of a fiscal challenge. For the last several years, Hall has not missed an opportunity to raise the issue and call for a tax increase to fix the problem.
Those who dismiss any talk of a tax hike to address highways and bridges should pick a direction and start driving in any direction. You won’t need to look for signs at the state line, for the improvement in the roads and bridges you travel on will signal that you’ve left Mississippi.
As MEC and their leadership noted, highways are an economic development issue and could well prove the difference as our state tries to compete for more and better manufacturing jobs. That should provide a ton of motivation to find a solution — as if making the roads and bridges our children and grandchildren are riding on better and safer isn’t enough motivation.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.