Meridian Star

December 29, 2013

Group driving call for road work

By Michael Stewart / Executive Editor
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     A coalition of road builders and business leaders plan to bring recommendations to the Mississippi Legislature in January on ways to pay for more road maintenance and bridge repairs.

    "We will probably look at 35 to 40 different options for bringing in different kinds of revenue. We will look at those and try to narrow those down to maybe six or eight that would be realistic in Mississippi," said Charlie Williams, a former Mississippi legislator who works for the Butler Snow law firm that is representing a group of diverse business owners called the T1 Coalition.

    The group is gauging interest across the state in finding a means to fund road work.

    "If the Legislature wanted, and I'm just going to throw a number at you, to raise $300 million a year, we would say, 'Here are four or five different ways you can get that. If you want $200 million a year, here are four or five ways you can get that.'"

    One of the funding options the T1 Coalition will likely present is an increase in the state's gasoline tax, which has remained at 18 cents a gallon since 1987.

    "Everybody would like to run from a gas tax but that's just the way roads have always been financed," Williams told The Meridian Star editorial board recently. "Our gasoline tax is 2 or 3 cents less than surrounding states."

    "There is also a very good chance we will get $1 billion from BP," Williams said. "There have been some people pretty high up who have talked about maybe taking half of that to get this thing started," he added.

    State officials say the need for road funding is great. Federal highway funds available to states are shrinking. The 18.4 cents a gallon motorists pay in federal fuel taxes that goes into the national Highway Trust Fund has not been raised since 1993 and with more fuel efficient cars, projected revenues are down while road construction prices have soared.

    States are seeing a similar decline in transportation funds for the same reasons.

    Max Arinder, director of the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, told the Associated Press that Mississippi's fuel tax isn't providing enough money to keep up with road maintenance and construction.

    In the same article, an official with The Road Information Program, a national research group, told the Associated Press that 28 percent of Mississippi roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 22 percent of the state's bridges need repairs.

    "From what we are hearing, what the general public would like to see is maintenance on the roads and to fix the really bad bridges," Williams said.

    Proponents say increased road and bridge work would would provide jobs and pump more money into the state's economy.

    Convincing lawmakers facing reelection to approve any form of tax increase for road repairs could prove difficult.

    "This road program is kind of like what the feds do with Social Security and Medicaid," Williams said. "They just keep kicking the can on down the road. They are hoping somebody else will take care of it and this big pile of money will come along and that's just not going to happen."