TUPELO — Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert said Friday that Mississippi must consider a fuel tax increases to maintain roads and bridges.
“The only thing worse than a tax increase is to irresponsibly fail to maintain” transportation infrastructure that is key to economic development and public safety, Tagert told the Tupelo Kiwanis Club.
The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reports the Republican Tagert said a 5 cent-per-gallon increase would increase revenue by $110 million to $120 million. Transportation officials have said Mississippi needs $400 million more each year to repave roads and replace bridges. Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, another Republican, has been pushing a tax increase for several years.
Mississippi’s gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn’t been raised since lawmakers passed the state’s four-lane highway program in 1987. Tagert said implementing a percentage tax, as opposed to a flat per-gallon tax increase, would help avoid the current revenue shortfalls in the future.
He said MDOT has demonstrated it is spending existing revenue wisely, but that increasing travel is wearing out highways and bridges. That and improvements in fuel efficiency, cutting gallons of gas sold, have made the current tax incapable of covering maintenance needs.
Tagert said the state has 700 bridges with weight limits, forcing loggers, farmers and others driving heavy vehicles to seek alternate routes that are often longer and more expensive. The Delta Council economic development group, for example, has complained about weight-limited bridges on Mississippi 6 between Batesville and Clarksdale.
It would cost an estimated $700 million to replace all those posted bridges — which average 60 years old — Tagert said.
A legislative watchdog report agreed with Department of Transportation leaders that the state needs hundreds of millions of dollars more each year to maintain existing highways. But with Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves explicitly ruling out an increase in fuel taxes, money-raising proposals went nowhere in the 2014 Legislature. Lawmakers did agree to spend $32 million more to help pay for local roads and bridges.
The Mississippi Economic Council has said it would study solutions, but that state chamber of commerce doesn’t plan to present its study until after the 2015 state elections, making action unlikely before the 2016 Legislature meets. Tagert said he’s hopeful business leaders will at some point convince lawmakers that it’s an economic necessity to pay for highway and bridge maintenance.
Tagert, who has said he will run for re-election in 2015, said he wants his record to reflect progress on the bridge and resurfacing maintenance issues, plus an improvement in highway safety and fatality records.