The biggest challenge facing the Mississippi Department of Transportation continues to be funding, MDOT Executive Director Brad White told the Columbus Rotary Club Tuesday afternoon.
White was named executive director on July 1, 2021. A native of Simpson County, White served as chief of staff for the Mississippi Department of Audit, U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Cindy Hyde-Smith and Gov. Tate Reeves. He was also assistant to Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall from 1999-2005.
MDOT has about 2,600 employees and an annual budget of around $1.4 billion.
Funding has been one of the agency’s major challenges for years, he said. In spite of the need to both build new transportation infrastructure and maintain what the state already has, funding has been flat for the last 10 to 15 years.
“About 10 years ago the transportation commission voted to move away from capacity projects, such as turning two lanes to four lanes,” he said. “Most of the funds go to rehabilitation and protection of the existing system. Even with that, we had about a $400 million a year gap in our funding needs (for roads).”
Bridges make up about a $50 million a year gap, he said. Still, only about 2 percent of the state’s bridges are classified as being in poor condition by the Federal Highway Administration.
The Legislature’s Emergency Road and Bridge Repair fund has helped to close those gaps somewhat, he said.
“MDOT gets about a third of the ERBR money,” he said. “We put about $250 million in the state funds the first year they did that. Again, to show you what the needs are, we got $250 million to spend the first year, we got about $110 million the second year, and we had over $900 million in applicants both years.”
The lottery has also been helpful, he said. MDOT is supposed to receive the first $80 million generated every year, and the first year it got about $70 million. The second year hit $80 million, and $50 million has been generated so far this year. The money goes towards the upkeep of two-lane highways that would otherwise be overlooked.
“We’ve got about 1,600 miles of two-lane highways that have been rehabilitated just in the last couple of years,” he said. “So we’re making progress, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Despite the perception that the federal infrastructure bill passed last year is a stimulus-type bill, that is not the reality, White said.
Instead, the $3.6 billion set aside for Mississippi was given to the Federal Highway Administration to be spent in the state over the next five years.
“The authorizations are done over five years,” he said. “The last five-year authorization we got was about $2.6 billion. We’re going to have about a billion more dollars over the next five years to spend on infrastructure needs, and we’re hopeful that will give us the capacity to address capacity projects again.”
The Federal Highway Commission will have to sign off on how that money is spent, he said.
Staffing is also a challenge, he said, because the state often can’t compete with the private sector, or, for that matter, cities and counties.
“Government doesn’t work like a business,” he said. “We have to follow the personnel board, and that doesn’t give us the flexibility to respond to issues as they come up.”
The service time for upper management and division leaders has shrunk dramatically, he said.
“It used to be the people who led a division or who served as a district engineer had a minimum of 30 to 35 years with the agency,” he said. “Today our average is 15 to 20 years. We have lost a great deal of institutional knowledge by our inability to compete.”
For the first time in the agency’s history, there are counties without MDOT employees, he said.
“We’re having to send employees across county lines to address issues,” he said.
Recently implemented cost of living raises will help with retention, he said.