Maintenance may eat highway funds, Hall says|[07/20/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 20, 2007

Mississippi might have better roads and highways than its neighbors, but the continued increase in costs to build and maintain them could mean trouble, said Dick Hall, Central District commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

&#8220If something doesn’t improve, we’re going to get where we have just enough money to maintain what we have,” Hall told members of Rotary Club Thursday.

Rising costs and cuts in revenue are continuing challenges for MDOT and its ability to complete projects, including about four pending in Warren County. At least six more projects are planned for the area, but timelines are pushed back when money is not available.

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Hall said the 1987 Mississippi AHEAD legislation had a built-in flaw. The legislation called for 18.44 cents of every gallon to go to MDOT. That per-gallon rate is still what MDOT gets today, even though construction costs have skyrocketed. The buying power of that 18.44 cents in 1987 has dwindled to 7.9 cents today, Hall said.

People are also responding to higher gas prices by adjusting their driving habits – taking fewer trips and buying more efficient vehicles.

&#8220There are fewer gallons to tax and the revenue stream is down,” Hall said.

Offering more specifics, Hall said dirt work costs alone have increased 125 percent since 1987. Surface materials in 2006 increased to $61.28 per ton, compared to $26.80 in 1987, which accounts for a 129 percent increase, he said. Fuel adjustment prices paid to contractors has seen the most significant rise – 406 percent – since 1999.

&#8220When a contractor bids for a job, gasoline is in the bid,” Hall said. &#8220Between June 2005 and January 2007, we paid $21 million in fuel adjustments – just as an extra cost. The problem is beyond serious.”

Hall said the cost factor is affecting Mississippi’s infrastructure as a whole.

&#8220If this continues, our economy as we know it cannot survive,” he said.

Perhaps the most talked about MDOT project in Vicksburg for the past 15 years is the planned South Frontage Road extension. Residents have heard talk for years about the possibility of having a bridge from the road’s ending point at Old Highway 27 near Watkins’ Nursery, across the railroad right-of-way to Vicksburg Factory Outlets. The first step in making this happen came July 12 when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $1.5 million for the project.

A $2.5 million environmental review of the long-proposed construction by the Federal Highway Administration was completed in June.

The overall cost of the project will be about $14 million.

Hall, a Vicksburg native who grew up in Jackson, is serving his second term as central district commissioner with MDOT. Before that time, he served six terms on the Mississippi Legislature – three in the House and three in the Mississippi State Senate.

His district oversees roads, airports, ports and railroads in 22 counties and is made up of almost a million people.


Highway projects currently under way: