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Transportation commissioner: Tax hike needed to fix highway & bridge woes

Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall wants to make Mississippi roads great again, to paraphrase President Donald Trump's campaign slogan.

To do so, it could cost Mississippians at the gas pump, he said.

Hall told the Stennis Capitol Press Forum in Jackson Monday that the Mississippi Department of Transportation needs an additional $400 million annually to fix the state's deficient roads and bridges.

He said 1,000 deficient bridges need to be repaired or replaced at a cost of $2.5 billion. He added that 5,000 of the state-controlled 11,548 lane-miles need to be repaired or reconstructed at a cost of $1 billion.

"Do they (the Legislature) think we (MDOT) are lying or do they just not care?" Hall said. "How can you contend that or do you just not care?"

To fix both, Hall says, requires a tax increase and the easiest way to do that is to increase the gasoline tax. He said a tax increase is needed because the costs of road-building materials such as steel and asphalt have increased 462 percent since 1987, when the state last increased its gas tax to pay for a massive network of four-lane state highways.

The state already imposes an 18.8 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which was set via a rate increase in 1987 and ranks 45th among the states, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

Hall said that state Sen. Dean Kirby (R-Pearl) has told him that he intends to introduce a bill in the next session that would put the possibility of increasing the state's gasoline tax and other fees to fund infrastructure repair and construction to a statewide referendum.

According to the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures, 26 states have increased their gasoline taxes since 2013 to fund infrastructure improvements.

The liberty-leaning Reason Foundation's most recent Highway Report, released in 2016, ranks Mississippi 10th in highway performance and cost effectiveness, a drop of two spots from the last report. Mississippi's rural interstate pavement condition was 32nd best nationally with 1.81 percent in poor condition, while rural arterial pavement condition was listed as 17th best. The number of structurally deficient bridges in the Magnolia State was 23rd nationally.

Mississippi spends about $81,000 per lane-mile annually, which is 27th most, but spends only about $7,000 annually per lane-mile on maintenance, the third least nationally.

The amount that gas-tax increase proponents say is needed to fix the state's roads and bridges has changed several times.

In February 2016, MDOT executive director Melinda McGrath told a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees that the department needed $526 million in new funding for maintenance and construction annually.

The Mississippi Economic Council, the state's largest business association, helped author a report in December 2015 that said the state needed to spend an additional $300 million per year for state highways and $75 million for county roads.

According to the MEC report, every 1 cent increase in the gas tax would yield $21.7 million, while each 0.05 percent increase in the sales tax would add $177.8 million. A $10 increase in the state’s license-tag fee would reap $27.5 million.

Mississippi maintains 29,000 lane-miles of roadways, including 2,930 miles of interstate.

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