The refrain in the first day of hearings by the state Senate Transportation Committee was the same: We need more money for pressing needs in the state.
The committee held hearings Thursday and Friday at the state Capitol seeking answers on how to best fund the state’s infrastructure requirements.
Harry Lee James, the engineer who runs the Office of State Aid Roads agency, said the state is leaving money on the table that could be used for infrastructure.
“Things have changed over the past 30 years and we need to make sure we are getting the most bang for the buck of what we’re now getting before we start looking at new things,” James said. “I’m not saying we don’t need to look at about how to raise more money for transportation because 15 years ago, we were having the same conversation when I was at MDOT (Mississippi Department of Transportation) in the early 2000s.”
He suggested more enforcement for car and trailer tag law violations to help the counties. He suggested that the law be changed to require leased and rental vehicles be equipped with Mississippi license plates and that the Legislature could increase fees that are directed to infrastructure spending, such as one assessed on underground storage tanks.
“None of these are big items, but kind of like when you compound interest on money, before you know it, you’ve got something fairly big you can deal with,” James said.
Derrick Surrette, who is the executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, said while $250 million was authorized for MDOT in the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act of 2018, there was $1 billion in infrastructure needs at that time. The same law is starting to redirect 35 percent of the state's use tax revenue, which is a 7 percent tax assessed on out-of-state purchases, including ones done through e-commerce.
While only $5.4 million was transferred in fiscal 2020 as the program started, the state earned $480 million in use tax revenue in fiscal 2020 as compared to $418 million in fiscal 2019 so this year's share will represent a bigger check for counties.
County governments are responsible for 50,000 miles of roads and 10,000 bridges, which represent the majority of the state’s roads and bridges.
“We’ve got to find a continuous source of revenue because other states are doing that,” Surrette said. “It’s a simple fact in life that we’re in a competitive world. We know that it’s impacting our economic development and opportunities.”
He cited Alabama’s 10 cent per gallon gasoline tax increase, which will increase Alabama’s tax to 26 cents per gallon.
Right now, drivers in Mississippi pay 37.19 cents in state and federal taxes on every gallon of gasoline, about 11 cents a gallon less than the national average. The state’s gas tax was last increased in 1987.
The federal gas tax has been 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. For every one cent increase, the state’s gasoline tax revenue ($423,642,449 in fiscal 2018) would increase by about $23 million.
Representatives of the state’s railroads and ports asked for more money be directed to them as well. Both agreed that reducing maximum weights for long-haul trucks would ease wear and tear on the state’s roads and bridges while making their industries more competitive.
They also suggested that harvest permits, which were originally designed to help farmers and timber firms get their products to market, should be limited to those products. The program, which each load is limited to 84,000 pounds or less and is prohibited from interstate highways, has been expanded by the Legislature in the last three decades to sand, gravel and fill dirt as well.