Feds start to shut down decrepit bridges
The Federal Highway Administration has begun inspecting bridges across the state with wooden supports. A transportation engineer, telling a state Senate committee about this work, said federal inspectors closed 64 of the first 120 bridges that they examined.
The implications are obvious: With 2,000 wooden-support bridges around the state, many of them need to be replaced at a price counties may not be able to afford. And that’s one more reason the Legislature needs to find more money for highway upgrades.
Some senators did not appreciate the outside agitators. One asked if the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which has advocated more money for highways, called in the feds. (An MDOT official told senators that the FHA initiated the inspections.)
But the problem is clear. The state’s network of highways — not just the fancy four-lane expansions over the past three decades but some older two lane roads and now some county bridges — need more money for maintenance and replacement.
All sorts of ideas abound, but the Legislature’s Republican majority is resisting. The business-friendly Mississippi Economic Council has called for raising taxes by $375 million a year to pay for more highway work. Senate Transportation Committee chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, last week proposed raising $358 million a year through higher fuel taxes, higher cigarette taxes and revenue from a state lottery.
Republicans control state finances and have not yet come around to the idea of a tax increase. Simmons is headed in the right direction, but there’s no need to make this difficult.
If, as he says, a seven-cent-per-gallon increase in the state fuel tax will bring in $164 million a year, then a 14- or 15-cent increase will just about reach the funding needs without any drama over cigarettes or a lottery.
To answer the obvious objection: It will be no fun for fuel taxes to go up. But the price of gasoline has been tolerable for the past three years. That would have provided a cushion against complaints of rising prices. The investment in the highway network will be worth it. There is plenty of powerful resistance to a tax increase. Republicans in the state have a good record of reducing or eliminating taxes, and they are right to be skeptical. They also are suspicious of MDOT, which has a little too much independence for their taste, and whose extravagant headquarters in Jackson built a few years ago probably still rankles some lawmakers.
The problem is, the longer the state delays its highway and bridge repairs, the more expensive the work becomes. It is simply mule-headed to spend billions of dollars on highway upgrades and then get cheap when the maintenance bills roll around.
The FHA’s inspections were another warning flag for the state. If those against a fuel tax increase know where else to find the money, they must inform the Legislature promptly.