We were driving through West Point toward Columbus last weekend when I had the bright idea to make a detour past Old Waverly, which we”d never explored before.
Once having been there and done that, we consulted our handy iPhone for the quickest route back toward Columbus.
A few twists and turns later, the pavement ended.
You”re not in Mississippi until you”re barreling down a gravel road at about 50 mph just after a rainstorm, the mud and rocks flinging around, with your wife by your side, wondering if we”re ever going to make it back on to pavement — or if this is the new normal. It”s gravel only, from here on out.
(We”re city folk and don”t get off the pavement enough. Don”t hold it against us.)
But the episode got me thinking, and not just about the next car wash. It also reminded me that we”ve embarked on another rocky adventure — barreling through billions in federal stimulus funds to repair and repave thousands of miles of roads across the country. And like that muddy Clay County road, things sometimes feel uneven.
Follow the money
The government allows anyone to track how these funds are being spent — anyone with a computer, at least — on a couple of different Web sites, Recovery.gov and USASpending.gov. Even better, I”ve found, is public-interest site ProPublica.org, which has analyzed what has been spent, what”s in the pipeline and, what can be broken down to individual counties, including all of Mississippi”s.
The money that can be traced directly to counties is a fraction of all stimulus money — only about $55 billion of more than $121 billion, according to ProPublica. The $55 billion is money that is supposed to directly lead to jobs.
The site has individual pages for all of Mississippi counties. The funds are even broken down to the per-capita level, meaning, in theory, how much money is each county getting per resident.
After compiling all 82 counties, I was surprised by which county is cleaning up the most.
Ahead of the pack, by far, is little ol” Noxubee County, with an outlay of $17 million, or roughly $1,442 per person. This compares to the state average of $235 per person.
Noxubee benefits from having a small population and big roads, including U.S. 45, the entire length of which is being repaved through the county. Brooksville Road and Section Line Road are also getting work — both projects amount to a combined $14.5 million.
Major renovations are also happening at Columbus Air Force Base”s auxiliary airfield in Shukqulak, to the tune of more than $816,000.
Lowndes County is doing OK too, according to ProPublica. The county is receiving more than $25 million direct-to-county funding, right at $424 per person, on average. About $5 million of this is for highways, with projects now under way on Highways 45 (near the Clay County line) and 82 (from Military Road to the Alabama line).
More big projects are taking place at CAFB, including $5 million to place power lines underground throughout the base.
Oktibbeha lands in the middle of the pack of Mississippi counties, with $249 per person, on average, in direct-to-county funding. While much of that is accounted for in grants at Mississippi State University, road work is also in the mix, with $1.2 million for a paving project on Poorhouse Road (which sounds like it could use a little money, and maybe a new name to boot).
While the federal government is spending large in Lowndes and Noxubee, Clay County is scraping by, comparatively speaking. The county is receiving $210 per capita in direct-to-county funds, below the state average. Still, some major change is being spent on roads — $2 million for work on U.S. 45 through West Point.
Apples and oranges
So roads are being improved. However, many of them are already what most of us would consider “good” roads, especially 45 and 82, which are already well maintained, compared to other roads that get much less attention, less tax outlays for improvement, and are still gravel.
I wonder if the rush to focus on “shovel-ready” jobs — quick and easy projects that work could start on right away — comes at the expense of a more comprehensive look at all our roads and how to improve them in a balanced way.
I know, this is comparing apples to oranges, in the great scheme of rules governing federal, state, and local funding, and how the money was applied for and doled out.
Even so, the intricacies of funding rules aren”t on your mind when you”re wondering if you”re about to be stuck in a ditch. So here we go, all of us barreling down this road, with little chance of turning back, no matter how bumpy things might get.
Steve Mullen is managing editor of The Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.