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MDOT: Transportation funding shortfall is public safety issue

Mike Tagert and MS project map Commissioner Tagert refers to map showing unfunded projects in Mississippi

New Albany, MS – The legislative leadership’s refusal to increase transportation funding is leading to the crumbling of the state’s roads and bridges. This is not only a road and bridge issue. It also affects Mississippi’s economic development, community growth, and public safety.

Mike Tagert

Northern MS Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert

At a recent press conference, Mike Tagert, North MS Transportation Commissioner, said the legislative leadership is not interested in raising the state fuel tax that provides transportation funding for Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT). He also referred to 170 unfunded infrastructure issues in North MS alone as “an immediate public safety issue.” According to Tagert, deteriorated roadway conditions contributed to many of the 677 Mississippian’s deaths on state roadways last year. As road conditions continue to decrease, the safety risk to the traveling public continues to rise.

“The current level of transportation funding means the state-owned rural highway system will continue to be neglected,” said Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director, Melinda McGrath. “In order to save Mississippi’s transportation system, action must be taken today. 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, and they now require complete rehabilitation.”

Could a rare Mississippi “visionary effort” come to naught?

I-22 dedication

John David Pennebaker (L) and Zack Stewart, at  I-22 dedication in New Albany.

In 1987, the Mississippi Legislature, led by John David Pennebaker and Zack Stewart, of New Albany,  passed an unprecedented and visionary $1.6 billion long-range highway bill, known as the “1987 Highway Program.” At the time, it was one of the most comprehensive in the country and called for the construction of over 1,000 miles of four-lane highways across the state. It also established a funding mechanism for construction in the form of an 18.4 cent per gallon fuel tax. Thirty years later, that tax remains exactly the same.

Unfortunately, the “1987 Highway Program” did not address transportation funding needs to preserve Mississippi’s highway system into the future or account for inflation in the construction of additional roadways. Over the past 30 years, rising construction costs, with no increases in funding, has forced MDOT to shift to a maintenance-only approach and focus on system preservation.

“Rising construction costs and aging infrastructure means MDOT will not be able to maintain the current condition of the system or build any new lanes or roadways,” Tagert said. “Without an increased investment in transportation, the majority of funds will be utilized to repair existing infrastructure and address safety projects while delaying projects that would repair aging infrastructure in rural areas, add capacity to the transportation network and stimulate the state’s economy.”

Will legislative “razzle dazzle” expand to Mississippi roadways?

In the mid-1900s, many county roads were given to the state, creating a paved network of farm-to-market routes that are still in use today. Because Mississippi is primarily an agricultural state, these rural corridors are vital to economic development. These roads continue to be neglected, because most of today’s state transportation funding goes toward maintaining major interstates and four-lane highways, which carry the majority of general statewide and commercial traffic.

Many bridges in rural areas are more than 60 years old, and were built using timber pilings. Over time, timber pilings rot due to weathering and age. This natural process weakens the bridge structure.  As these pilings fail, the maximum weight allowed on the bridge is reduced, or the bridge is closed to traffic. Reducing weight limits on a bridge prohibits the movement of goods and services for agriculture and manufacturing. This increases costs for everyone.

Mississippi’s current leadership has been playing a “shell game” aimed at shifting many costs and responsibilities back to local taxpayers and communities.  Now there have been recent discussions by legislators to cut MDOT’s budget by $50 million and “give” that portion to the counties and municipalities.

Should the financial wizards of the legislature endow local governments with part of MDOT’s already insufficient funding, local communities may find themselves funding repairs caused by thirty years of state neglect in their own back yards.

Mississippi already suffers from the results of poor leadership in the areas of education funding and healthcare. It appears the driving public and rural commercialization efforts could now fall to the same axe.

How bad is the shortfall for state roadway preservation?

Union County unfunded road projects

Click to enlarge. For full-size map see MDOT link following article.

Only $300 million remains available for operational costs in MDOT’s budget, after setting aside federal dollars’ mandated local match funds and project-specific revenue bonds. Included in these costs are funds to maintain highways in good repair and to meet state and federal regulations.

“This $300 million is used for daily operational expenses,” McGrath said. “This includes $200 million the state spends on routine maintenance for patching potholes, repairing roadway slides, repairing bridges and clearing roadways after emergencies as first responders, just to name a few.”

“MDOT maintains 30,000 highway miles, and 11,000 miles need to be repaired or replaced,” McGrath said. “And, approximately 900 of the 5,700 bridges MDOT maintains need to be reconstructed, because they have restrictions that hinder commercial traffic.” According to economic developers, these areas have lost businesses and industries because of the lack of adequate infrastructure to carry the increase in commercial traffic.

“MDOT is utilizing its funding to meet the state-owned transportation system’s greatest needs; however, the condition of roads continues to deteriorate faster than the state has the funding to improve them,” McGrath said. “During our most recent legislative information request, MDOT produced research information indicating an additional $400 million annually for 10 to 15 years is needed in transportation funding to halt the deterioration and restore the state-owned highway system for Mississippi to remain economically competitive and reduce fatalities.”

What is the impact on local counties likely to be?

Unless additional funding is secured, numerous paving, bridge and capacity upgrade (added lanes) projects across North Mississippi will not be constructed.

In New Albany, customers of new area businesses, as well as nearby residents often experience problems entering Highway 30 from Starlyn Lane. MDOT has approved a new traffic signal for the intersection of Starlyn and Highway 30 in New Albany. However, MDOT has informed local authorities that they do not have the funds for installing the signal at the intersection.

In Northeast Mississippi, there is a need to four-lane a section of Highway 15 in Tippah County from the Union County line to just north of State Route 4. All rights of way have been purchased, the majority of the utilities have been relocated and plans are being finalized. This project will not move forward without additional funding.

Lack of a funding solution ensures that pavement conditions will also continue to decline in North Mississippi. In District 2, State Route 4 in Tate County from the Marshall County line to Interstate 55 is crumbling. This section of highway also poses a safety risk to motorists because of poor line of sight and dangerous curves.

Tagert urged taxpayers who believe this issue to be a priority to make their beliefs known to the legislature.

Pennebaker, Stewart and the 1987 Roadway bill

Unfunded MS projects by County: Mississippi’s Unfunded Highway Projects by County

Unfunded MS projects by District: Mississippi’s Unfunded Highway Projects by District

Full-size Map of  MS Unfunded Roadway Projects: http://sp.gomdot.com/Fiscal%20Year%20Reports/FY%202017/Better%20Funding%20Better%20Roads/Map%20of%20Mississippi’s%20Unfunded%20Highway%20Projects.pdf

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