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MISS: MDOT chief wants fuel tax raised, funds not diverted

MISS: MDOT chief wants fuel tax raised, funds not diverted


July 9, 2009

Haddiesburg American.com

By BEN PIPER

PETAL - Funding to rebuild and repair deficient Mississippi bridges could come from a needed gasoline tax increase, according to Mississippi Department of Transportation officials.

Butch Brown, executive director of MDOT, discussed the gas tax Wednesday during a news conference introducing a national campaign to raise the awareness of critical highway and transit system needs.

Brown says Mississippi's gas tax of 18.5 cents per gallon has remained unchanged since 1987 while fuel prices have quadrupled. He says lawmakers need to increase the tax and stop diverting about a third of the money to other programs.

Brown also said that bridge repair is one of the state's most critical needs. He said about 25 percent of the state's bridges are deficient.

Rep. Larry Byrd, R-Petal, believes it will take more than a half a billion dollars and more than three decades to repair and replace faulty bridges in Mississippi.

Byrd spoke to the Petal Area Chamber of Commerce Wednesday about the condition of the state's bridges. He said nearly 3,000 of these structures across the state qualify for rehabilitation or replacement.

The state appropriates $20 million for the Local System Rehabilitation and Replacement Program for bridges in disrepair. Byrd said he would like to see $60 million go toward this initiative.

"At the current rate, it would take 35 years and $700 million to get on level ground," he said. "And you can imagine the condition of the rest of our bridges in 35 years, so it's something we need to give more attention to."

Byrd said 82 counties have to share the $20 million or roughly $200,000 each. He said that amount would supply the purchase of one small bridge per year, and some counties don't even spend their allotment.

"Some counties will try to save up this money for larger purchases," he said.

Money from the new excise tax on tobacco could be a funding source to increase appropriations for bridges, he said. He said he would like to see $60 million designated for the counties.

Sen. Tom King, R-Petal, chairs the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee and also spoke at the chamber meeting. He said Byrd is on target with his numbers and what needs to be done.

"Many of our bridges are in poor condition," he said. "Right now, we're working with the money we have in a tight priority schedule."

King said the state needs to pass up to $300 million in bonds to expedite the bridge issue.

"Public safety is the main issue," he said. "We have to invest in ourselves though, step up to the plate and get a bond passed."

Byrd spoke briefly about the approval of the state's budget. He said part of the slowdown is that some legislators vote against appropriations no matter what initiative is funded.

"If it has money in it, they are against it," he said. "We need a conservative government, but we have to work hard to contain the growth of government, or it will feed on itself and unchecked, grow exponentially."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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