Salter: Legislation to rebuild, maintain roadway infrastructure is struggling

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 24, 2016

Salter: Legislation to rebuild, maintain roadway infrastructure is struggling

Reports on Mississippi roads and bridges are so plentiful that one could pave several miles of roadway or shore up crumbling bridges with them, it would seem.
That may be an exaggeration, but reports are indeed being employed to either encourage or discourage state voters on the issue of new funding for road and bridge construction or maintenance.
There are reports being circulated by anti-gas tax increase groups like the so-called “Americans for Prosperity” group arguing the Mississippi’s roads and bridges aren’t so bad in comparison with the rest of the region and the rest of the nation. But there are other reports, including broad-based data from TRIP, a Washington nonprofit research group that argues exactly the opposite position.
In particular, TRIP argues that some 25 percent of Mississippi’s urban roads are in poor condition and that 21 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
The Mississippi Economic Council is more pragmatic in their arguments for infrastructure improvements in the state. 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.
Some 16 states have approved gas tax hikes over the last two years, but Mississippi isn’t one of them.
As the 2016 regular session winds down, there remain hope that momentum for the MEC-based “Excelerate Mississippi” initiative — a package of legislative proposals the group says will raise $375 million per year to improve transportation infrastructure in Mississippi – will grow.
The MEC-based package would increase the state’s fuel tax, increase vehicle registration fees and generally raise taxes on road use.
Despite another cycle of gas price decreases followed by sharp increases, fuel consumption remains flat and overall fuel efficiency continues to improve, so as we drive less and get more miles to the gallon, gas taxes — currently at 18.4 cents per gallon for both federal and state rates — doesn’t raise enough revenue to sustain the current transportation infrastructure or to expand and improve it.
Last year, Congress approved a $305 billion transportation package that increased highway spending, the nation’s first major transportation legislation since 2005.
But even then, Congress didn’t raise federal fuel taxes from 18.4 cents per gallon – that despite the fact that the federal fuel tax doesn’t keep pace with inflation even as fuel efficiency continues to improve and hence reduce fuel tax revenues.
In the Mississippi Legislature, early hopes abounded for a “tax swap” of sorts – a cut some taxes in exchange for an increase in state fuel taxes. But lingering state revenue shortfalls in recent months continue to put a damper on that scheme.
Still, the political drums suggest that lawmakers will entertain a reasonable tax hike package dedicated to infrastructure. The problem is that anticipated tax cuts for corporations and for individual income balance well enough with a tax hike aimed at fixing roads and bridges – that is, until revenue shortfalls create increasing fears about the overall state budget.
Reports, like statistics, can be manipulated to illustrate a plethora of legislative positions. But the “Mississippi roads and bridges aren’t so bad” argument is rather laughable. Despite the best efforts of MDOT and county road crews, that argument fails the “drive 100 miles in any direction” test in Mississippi.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him

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