Blake Wilson, President and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, told the Columbus Rotary Club on Tuesday that Mississippi’s economic health and road infrastructure are directly linked.
He spoke of the urgency in need for increased funds to repair the deterioration of hundreds of bridges and thousands of miles of road across the state. Without them, Wilson said, Mississippi’s competitive advantage will be threatened.
“We’ve got to do something or we’re going to lose the edge that we’ve had,” he said. “Imagine what would’ve happened if (Highway) 82 had stayed as a 2-lane. Where would all that development have gone? Not here.”
The MEC has introduced the “Excelerate Mississippi” program which recommends an additional $375 million for state and local road and bridge rehabilitation. Wilson said MEC recommends that $300 million of that money goes to state roads and bridges, which are more expensive to repair and maintain than local ones. The remaining $75 million would be allocated for local roads and bridges.
The $300 million for state infrastructure represents an increase of about 25 percent over the current allocation, Wilson said, and the $75 million for local roads and bridges doubles the current allocation.
The Excelerate program calls to replaces 138 posted bridges — bridges that can no longer carry the weight or function for which they were constructed — and 424 other state deficient bridges over 10 years. The program also aims to repair decaying road surfaces.
Wilson said legislators will have to decide how to generate the revenue to fund the program. He said an increase in the state gas tax — the first since 1987 — shouldn’t be off the table.
“Inflation is up over 100 percent (since 1987),” Wilson said. “Construction costs are up over 217 percent. How can we expect to handle the 90 percent increase in vehicular travel — the miles traveled — or the 17 percent increase in number of vehicles on the road?”
The gas tax hasn’t kept up with increased road usage; Wilson said cars are now more fuel efficient, so the total gas tax revenue is only up 1.6 percent.
Wilson went on to say that there doesn’t seem to be public opposition to generating revenue. He said MEC conducted a poll of 1,000 registered voters in December. The poll found that 53 percent of voters supported increasing taxes or fees if it specifically went toward fixing failing roads and bridges.
Wilson added that it’s significantly cheaper to repair roads before they reach a critical condition.
“If this pavement condition moves into being a critical need–that means they have to dig it up–the cost is the difference of $60,000 per mile for rehabilitation and $240,000 per mile for major rehabilitation.”
Mississippi’s road issues are a vital economic concern, Wilson said, because many other states are looking at ways to tackle their own road problems. The longer the state waits around while other states such as Alabama or Tennessee begin rehabilitation programs, he said, the more ground it will have to make up later.
“Standing still is falling backwards,” Wilson said. “And we are falling backwards in Mississippi.”