MDOT work slows with cash crunch

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 29, 2000

Mississippi residents hoping for four-lane highways may now be paying the price for a few years of mild winters.

Because of the mild weather, state highway workers have not had much downtime over the past three years, said state Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez. That means the Department of Transportation is ahead of schedule on highway construction projects – and too strapped for cash to begin the next scheduled projects.

At the top of that list? The stretch of U.S. 61 North from the Adams County line to Fayette, Dearing said.

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&uot;I could not believe it when (state highway commissioners) told me that,&uot;&160;said Dearing, chairman of the Senate highways and transportation committee.

The problem, Dearing said, is that MDOT has spent its reserve funds on work that is progressing more quickly than the department expected. &uot;They have spent down the cash balance,&uot; Dearing said. &uot;They don’t have money in the bank to match the federal dollars.&uot;

Dearing met this week with state highway commissioners and state Sens. Bill Minor and Jack Gordon to discuss MDOT’s funding problems.

The worst case scenario, Dearing said, is the state will lose federal money allocated for highway construction because MDOT does not have the cash to match it.

So commissioners will be asking lawmakers to allow them to let between $150 million and $200 million in bonds, Dearing said. So far, the $4.7 billion 1987 highway program has used less than $100 million in bond money, Dearing said. &uot;The rest has been pay-as-you-go,&uot; he said.

Dearing has asked Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to include the highway department’s request in his special session on economic development.

”That is under consideration right now,” Musgrove said Thursday at the Neshoba County Fair. ”What we need to do is look at the overall impact of economic development in our state, and certainly that is one key element.”

If the governor does not include the highway funds in the special session, lawmakers can address the issue in next spring’s regular session.

But that would mean more waiting for southwest Mississippi residents who want to see U.S. 61 four-laned, Dearing said.

The contract for the section of U.S. 61 from Adams County to Fayette was supposed to have been let June 1, but MDOT doesn’t have the money to pay for it.

&uot;The good weather’s helping us in a way,&uot; he said, referring to the quick work being done on the four-lane project on U.S. 84 from Natchez to Brookhaven. &uot;But it’s also going to delay us.&uot;

Dick Hall, chairman of the three-member commission that oversees MDOT, said if the governor does not call a special session, all highway construction could halt by the end of the year. ”If the Legislature doesn’t address it, we’ll have a work stoppage, not a slowdown,” Hall said.

And the funding crunch is hurting more than highway construction. Dearing said the funding requests for highway construction don’t even address highway maintenance.

&uot;(Commissioners) did tell us there will not be a pothole fixed for a year,&uot; Dearing said.

Highway commissioners have conducted informal surveys about the possibility of raising the gas tax to help pay for maintenance and encountered little resistance, Dearing said.

But Dearing also said he finds it hard to believe MDOT&160;is already worried about maintaining roads built for the 1987 highway program since southwest Mississippi’s projects aren’t complete yet.

&uot;I don’t think (people in southwest Mississippi) would complain about (added gas taxes) once they have their own highways,&uot; he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.