BY DANA CRISWELL
With less than a week until Christmas I know I should be thinking of things other than the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) and roads and bridges. Julie, my wife, tells me I should put government stuff out of my mind for just a few days but this stuff will not get out of my head. By the way, Merry Christmas!
Over the past months I've read, talked and listened to a lot of input from the House and Senate transportation committee chairs, MDOT employees, State Transportation Commissioners, road builder lobbyist, and tax payers. As I've said before, I've come to respect the leaders of MDOT and I believe they do a good job managing our highway system, I also know that the average citizen fully understands the importance of good roads and bridges. I don't question anyone's motive as we try to come to a conclusion that is best for our state.
What I've Learned
Mississippi has twice the highway miles per person than the national average. Lots of good roads are good for our state and help bring businesses and jobs, but we've over built and can no longer afford to build and maintain. It's not very complicated, we all make decisions every day based on what is best and what we can afford and as a State we must make those same decisions. We simply can not afford everything we want. We can not afford to continue building because we don't have the money to build and maintain.
In an October 28, 2016 interview with Mississippi Today, Commissioner Tagert said, “We love to build new roads and bridges, as you can imagine, but under circumstances, it would be irresponsible to build new roads and bridges if we are not able to maintain our current roads and bridges. … (we) have become the Department of Maintenance.” I'm actually OK with MDOT becoming a "Department of Maintenance" and I'm in complete agreement with Commissioner Tagert when he said "it would be irresponsible to build new roads and bridges if we are not able to maintain our current roads and bridges."
So I propose we change the name to the Mississippi Department of Road and Bridge Maintenance.
The Lingering Question
The question still lingering is, must we raise taxes on the people of Mississippi to complete the maintenance required on our roads and bridges. MDOT estimates they need as much as $375 million a year for the next 10 years to bring all of our roads and bridges up to an acceptable level of repair. Even if we assume we can squeeze half of that from MDOT by requiring they operate more efficiently we are still left almost $200 million short of their stated need.
If we stop ALL new projects we can cover some of that shortfall. But where do we get the rest?
Commissioner Tagert has suggested the possibility of "annual bonding for non-maintenance related projects." But is borrowing the money the best way for us to solve this issue? Since 1998 MDOT has borrowed money through bonds, just this year MDOT bonded bridges on Highway 6 because they didn't have the funding to pay for the repairs. According to the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) Report #581, in 2013 MDOT spent over $64 million on debt payments. Just like with my families budget, borrowing money is usually the wrong answer. Tennessee does not borrow money for roads or bridges at all, I personally believe we should move toward a similar pay as you go approach toward funding our Department of Transportation. If we can't afford it, we don't build it.
My Conclusions and Decision
- MDOT's funding over the past 30 years has not kept up with inflation. The cost of road construction has increased at a rate several times the rate of MDOT's funding.
- It is not unreasonable to increase the gas tax because there has been no increase since 1987.
- MDOT must also show me very specifically where they are going to gain efficiencies and save money that can be diverted to maintenance of roads and bridges.
- The people of Mississippi are taxed excessively and should not be burdened with any tax increase.
- We must stop the practice of borrowing money to build roads and bridges.
- I will consider an increase in the gas tax but ONLY if it is accompanied by equal decreases in other taxes. NO AGGREGATE TAX INCREASE! No additional money will be taken from the people at the end of the day.
I want to be clear about my position. In a recent article at Mississippi Today, Bill Crawford lamented that the "Republicans have a stranglehold on state government and will do whatever it takes to strangle spending so they can cut taxes." That is absolutely what I want to do! It has been my experience that government never gets smaller on its own, it must be strangled. "Government by strangulation" is the only way the people will ever get a smaller more efficient government.
The people of Mississippi deserve an efficient, well run government. I do not believe we need to raise taxes to fund the required maintenance on our roads and bridges.