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Mississippi transportation report seeks more spending clarity

The report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, could figure prominently into the ongoing debate over raising more money for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

By Jeff Amy
The Associated Press

1/14/2014

JACKSON, Miss. — A new report calls for Mississippi's road-building agency to do more to account for the money it spends, but agrees the state doesn't have enough money to maintain its roads and bridges.

The report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, could figure prominently into the ongoing debate over raising more money for the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

The watchdog committee agreed with MDOT's position that Mississippi needs to spend about $400 million more per year to keep roads and bridges from getting worse.

"There is clearly a shortage of funds to meet the state's road needs," said the report, released Friday.

Proponents of more money have pushed to raise the state gasoline tax. But they're now seeking other options, given Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves are both opposed to such a tax increase.

Opponents of more spending have said it's unclear how MDOT decides to spend money, or whether it's spending on the highest needs. In a series of 14 recommendations, PEER called on MDOT to make its decision making easier for outsiders to understand, and for the agency to do more to measure its bang for the buck.

PEER wrote that MDOT not only needs to describe how it selects projects, but "show that it selected the right project and carried out the project in an efficient manner."

PEER criticized MDOT for deviating from its internal rating system to select bridge replacement projects, but said the agency is "moving in the right direction of providing sufficient documentation to support its bridge project decisions."

MDOT is trying to allocate maintenance money to its six districts based on need, versus the prior system based on vehicle miles traveled. That transition has left northeast Mississippi's first district with a larger share of funds than need calls for, while it's left the sixth district running from Laurel to the Gulf Coast with a smaller share.

PEER criticized the agency for spending money studying and buying land for expansions unlikely to be built for years.

MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath wrote back to PEER that the department would use the recommendations as "a guiding document" to develop a strategic plan to report on the department's efficiency and performance in a way the public can understand. The department has also received and is analyzing a study about how it uses its equipment.

PEER's analysis shows MDOT spent $505 million on maintenance last year, or 46 percent of the agency's $1.1 billion budget. Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, a Republican who represents the Central District, has been leading the fight for more revenue. He found the report favorable to MDOT.

"I'm for more resources," he said Tuesday. "I'll leave it to the Legislature to determine what shape it takes. I'm trying to make the case that we need more resources or we're going to be driving on gravel roads."

But with opposition strong to raising the state's fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, lawmakers are looking for other ideas.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, said he hoped lawmakers might add another $20 million from general tax receipts to pay for bridges. He also said he'd like MDOT to keep all the money being generated from fuel taxes and find a way to replace about $100 million currently going to cities, counties, and others.

Sen. Russell Jolly, D-Houston, has introduced a bill that would earmark any lawsuit settlements Mississippi gets from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill for transportation needs, with half going to MDOT and half to be distributed equally among the state's 82 counties. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said he'd like to consider using increased tax revenue from oil drilling in southwest Mississippi as a funding source.

Online: PEER transportation report: http://bit.ly/1iPVgFw

Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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