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Money on the line in highway debate
by Wyatt Emmerich
Jul 06, 2017 | 772 views | 0 0 comments | 40 40 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Mississippi voters need to get up to speed on the debate about highway funding. There’s a lot of money on the line.

How much money? TRIP, a national transportation research group, just completed a study claiming deficient roads are costing Mississippians $2.9 billion a year in vehicle repairs, traffic delays and crashes. That’s about $1,500 per vehicle.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature won’t raise the gas tax 15 cents a gallon to increase road funding, an increase that would cost drivers about $100 per vehicle. The tax has never been adjusted for inflation in 25 years.

The Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) is mounting a huge public relations effort to raise the gas tax but it has so far fallen on deaf ears at the Legislature.

So what gives? Why would our leaders not spend $100 to save $1,500? It’s like refusing to spend money on an oil change that would save your entire engine from destruction.

Like an oil change, we can defer maintenance on our roads for many years until the results come home to roost. This creates a difficult political challenge. Our leaders must do something unpopular now to avoid greater cost down the road. Leadership is required – something in scarce supply in this age of Tea Party revolt, especially in an anti-tax Republican state like Mississippi.

Living in Jackson, I have seen first-hand what happens when road maintenance is deferred. I have spent thousands on tires, rims and alignment jobs.

Even worse, it costs far more to rebuild a road than to repave it. By the time the problem becomes obvious, it’s too late. Instead of a simple mill and overlay, the entire road must be rebuilt at four times the cost.

The political will is harder to muster given the changing landscape of campaign contributions. As money and power have become centralized in large national political action committees, state organizations like the MEC are outspent by national anti-tax foundations.

One such organization is Americans For Prosperity (AFP), funded significantly by the Koch brothers, two of the richest billionaires in the United States.

AFP is not a bad organization at all. They are dedicated to controlling runaway government spending. But like any ideology, strict adherence to principles can lead to a lack of pragmatism.

The MEC spent $300,000 on their state road study. Meanwhile, AFP-Mississippi has spent millions opposing the gas tax increase. Much of this money has gone directly to our political leaders, clouding their objectivity on the issue. For instance, AFP-Mississippi just spent five figures on a direct mail flyer praising Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ opposition to the gas tax.

It takes money to win elections. AFP and other conservative national political action committees have the big bucks to make it so.

Money aside, the AFP makes some good points. Their main point is that even though the gas tax has not been increased in 25 years, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) budget has increased quite nicely over the years from federal funds and other state sources.

In 1988, the MDOT budget was $434 million. Twenty years later the budget had ballooned to $1.5 billion. That’s not exactly a starvation diet.

But it’s always more complicated than it seems. The 2017 inflation index is 2.1 times higher than 1988. Miles driven on Mississippi roads are 1.9 times higher. Combined, that indicates the 2017 MDOT budget should be $1.737 billion today instead of $1.5 billion. That’s a $237 million shortfall. The gas tax would raise about $350 million.

The MEC argues that road repair and maintenance costs are three times higher than in 1988 – even higher than inflation. If that is true, then a 15 cent gas tax would bring our MDOT budget in line.

AFP makes another good point: The worst roads are the city and county roads, not the state roads. Raising the gas tax wouldn’t fix the real problem unless MDOT starts sharing its money with local governments.

Indeed, MDOT has only given 10 to 15 percent of its budget to city and counties in the form of state aid. If the gas tax is increased, MDOT is promising to increase this to 20 percent. But that still seems low. If the gas tax is increased, the Legislature should insist that half the increase go to fix our deteriorating local roads.

I do fault AFP in their claim that only one percent of our roads are in bad shape. It seems to me they cherry-picked the stats to come up with that claim. Both state and federal data indicate that about a third of our roads are in poor or very poor shape. Unfortunately, a huge number of smaller local roads are not included in these surveys. If they were, the number of bad roads would probably be close to 50 percent.

Another weakness in the AFP argument is that Mississippi roads are not that bad compared to other states. That argument has a glaring weakness – bad roads are plaguing the entire nation. If the whole class has an F average, being average in the class is still failing.

Part of the problem is that the professionals who are in a position to judge the quality of our roads have a vested interest in expanding the maintenance budgets. That’s what they do. A good engineer is always going to want to build the best roads and maintain them perfectly. But is that a bad thing?

No doubt, there is waste at MDOT. There is waste everywhere. But if we delay maintaining our roads until we solve the problem of bureaucratic waste, we will eventually all be driving off-road vehicles on dirt roads.

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