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‘We will have a crisis’: MDOT official warns construction projects will halt without more money

Road work
Photo courtesy of MDOT

Officials with the Mississippi Department of Transportation are looking for a recurring stream of funding from the legislature to bring roads and bridges statewide up to par.

Commissioner Willie Simmons of the state’s central district joined The Gallo Show on Monday to explain that the ability to execute routine maintenance projects will be in limbo if a stream of cash is not made available soon.

In 2023, MDOT was allocated a historic amount nearing $2 billion by the legislature. However, that was a one-time allocation, not a series of figures that will continue to roll into the department each year. Simmons says it will take roughly $400 million on a yearly basis to adequately sustain existing infrastructure while making headway on other necessary projects in Mississippi.

“We are coming into a situation where we will have a crisis on our hands,” Simmons said. “For the most part, it’s one-time money, and we can’t build a good infrastructure system, especially capacity projects, on one-time money. So we’re thankful to the legislature for what they have done, but we need them to give us recurring dollars.”

In all, the commissioner estimates that MDOT will need a grand total of $9 billion over the course of the next several years, though he was not specific about the exact timeframe and if that number could fluctuate due to the toll inflation has taken on the economy and the ability to complete projects in a maximally cost-efficient manner. If the money is not made available, he is certain that some vital road and bridge improvements will halt altogether.

To up the funding without making taxpayers bear additional burdens every April, Simmons is hopeful that legislators would increase the department’s share of funding from diversion use taxes. He would like to see MDOT funded at the same rate as cities and municipalities, which receive three times more money from the existing tax structure.

Another mechanism that would bring additional money to the department without hitting taxpayers in the wallet would come from a revision to laws describing where lottery funds are divvied. Currently, MDOT receives up to $80 million from revenue generated by the lottery. All funds in excess go toward education.

Ideas floating out around the capitol would involve that funding mechanism being scrapped in exchange for a formula that would remove the hard cap and give MDOT 80 percent of the lottery funds and allocate the other 20 percent toward education. According to Simmons, that would have upped MDOT’s portion by approximately $40 million last year.

While Simmons is doubtful that any meaningful legislation to establish a recurring fund will be passed this year, he is looking to plant the seed early and set the spiral in motion ahead of the 2025 legislative session.

“We don’t anticipate getting $400 million this year in recurring money for maintenance. We don’t anticipate getting the $9 billion committed at this particular point,” Simmons said. “However, we want to start the process, and each year, build on that until we get to where we know that the money’s going to come and we can adequately plan.”

As for what can help MDOT now, a band-aid in the form of a one-time payment could be given to the department this year. Legislators have about $80 million in COVID-19 pandemic relief funds that Simmons is hopeful will go toward keeping roads and bridges across the state suitable for daily transportation.

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