Will lawmakers finally listen?
Mississippi lawmakers expect to have a plate that is more than overflowing when they return to Jackson this month.
One item that’s going to be high up on the list for the umpteenth time is the deteriorating condition of the state’s roads and bridges.
The Legislature keeps having to revisit this issue because of its stubborn refusal to acknowledge the obvious: The current 30-year-old gas tax is insufficient to deal with the problem.
When discussions were just focused on the state’s four-lane highways and the bridges that run along them, it was easier for some lawmakers to ignore the issue, depending on how recently their areas had their highways four-laned.
But as the information keeps piling up about deficient or dangerous two-lane county roads and bridges, the pressure is mounting to do something. Lawmakers are much more likely to listen to their local supervisors griping than they are the Mississippi Department of Transportation because of the longstanding tensions between MDOT and the Legislature. Lawmakers have never liked that MDOT, which is financed through special funds, is somewhat immune from their control, unlike other state agencies that have to grovel every year for their slice of the general operating fund.
The situation with county roads and bridges is not good, and it’s getting worse all the time. Over the past year and a half, the number of closed bridges has more than tripled, from 146 in August 2016 to about 500 today, according to a recent article in the Clarion Ledger of Jackson. That represents about 5 percent of all the bridges that counties are supposed to maintain. Four times as many bridges are posted, meaning that because of their deteriorating pilings and other substructure, they can no longer support as much weight as they were designed for. Posted bridges leave farmers, road contractors, timber haulers and others who truck heavy loads along county roads with one of two options: either go to the expense and time of rerouting their trucks, or drive over these bridges anyway, hoping that you don’t get caught and that the bridges don’t fall down.
Fall down, though, they eventually will. When they do, it probably won’t be the offending haulers who get killed but rather the unsuspecting motorists who come behind them.
The counties are requesting that the money the state appropriates for county roads and bridges be roughly doubled, from the current $122 million to $247 million. That’s on top of the $300 to $400 million extra that’s needed annually to catch up on the long-deferred maintenance and repair of state-owned highways and bridges.
Think that price tag is too high? It keeps rising every year that the Legislature doesn’t act.
Lawmakers have refused to raise the fuel tax because they think voters might kick them out of office if they do. But there are other costs their negligence is imposing: higher transportation expenses for businesses, higher repair costs for vehicle owners, higher local taxes for property owners.
It is utterly illogical to pretend that a fixed-rate tax set in 1987 can keep up with 30 years of inflation. Maybe the counties’ collective screaming will finally drive that commonsense point home.