State has no funding for roads, bridges

Published 11:58 pm Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Last month the State of Mississippi announced the closure of more than 100 deteriorating and unsafe bridges.

The Federal Highway Administration forced the state to close the bridges after the Mississippi Legislature closed its session without coming up with an adequate source of funding to repair and properly maintain the state’s aging and deteriorating roads and bridges.

Many of the state’s neglected roads and bridges are in rural counties that cannot afford to do the work themselves.

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Adams County has for the past 10 years issued bonds at low interest rates to fund blacktopping and maintaining the county’s approximately 480 miles of roads and 80 bridges, District 1 Supervisor Mike Lazarus said.

Currently Adams County, has only one bridge out — Hutchins Landing Bridge off of U.S. 61 South — but two, Anna’s Bottom Bridge and Deerfield Bridge, that were recently repaired have been awaiting since February and November, respectively, for state approval to reopen.

Adams County is better off than many other counties, such as Wilkinson County, which Lazarus said has some 20 bridges out.

“Since I’ve been in office, we’ve upgraded a lot of roads in Adam’s County in the past 10 years,” Lazarus said, adding the funding came partly from bond issues. “We’ve been paying the bond off and renewing it.”

Lazarus said the system of cycling the bond issues has been effective because of low interest rates, but the rates are about to go up and he is hesitant to support such a program going forward.

“They (state legislators) need a long-term plan,” Lazarus said, adding that it is difficult to plan for maintaining and repairing the county’s roads and bridges without a stable funding mechanism. “Some years we get money, some years we don’t. We’re lucky to only have one bridge out, but we certainly have bridges that need work.”

Last week, the Mississippi Road Builders’ Association Inc. announced a recent Mason-Dixon poll found that 84 percent of likely voters believe it is the Legislature’s responsibility to come up with a long-term solution to fund maintenance and repair of the state’s roads and bridges.

Through the years, the Legislature has discussed property tax increases, a state lottery and fuel taxes as possible funding solutions for the state’s road and bridges.

“I commend the Legislature on trying to find various methods to fund roads and bridges,” said Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association. “The public is well-aware of the decline in our state’s roads and bridges but not so aware in the decline of buying power in our current funding structure. While considering all options, we should not ignore the fuel tax user fee continues to be one of the easiest and fairest long-term, comprehensive fixes to the lack of stable funding.”

The poll indicated voters also believe the fuel tax should be used to pay for roads and bridges by 57 percent compared to 9 percent using property taxes.

Lazarus said he is leaning toward favoring a fuel tax.

“They’re kicking around a lot of ideas,” Lazarus said. “The highway commission is in favor of adding to the gas tax. It has been done in other states, and it works well. The gas price fluctuates and putting the gas tax on is not the end of the world.”

Regardless of the cure the Legislature would have to go into a special session to come up with a remedy and that could be an expensive process.

“I wish they would have taken care of it in regular session,” Lazarus said, noting the cost of a special session and the importance of good roads and bridges for safety, quality of life and economic development. “If they (legislators) would go in without pay, that would be a great idea.”

The Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy poll was conducted April 12-14 and surveyed 625 registered voters. It has a margin of error of +- 4 percentage points.