Perhaps there is no function of government that citizens use more than the road system. Unfortunately, much of Mississippi’s roadway system is in poor condition. As state leaders grapple with proposals to restore the roads and repair the bridges, it is essential that funding is prioritized towards repairs and maintenance on existing roadways rather than expansion projects.

In the construction and operation of highways, there is a need for the state to balance the cost of capital improvements (such as building a new overpass bridge or adding a lane) with the costs of maintenance. There is a balance between meeting the growing highway needs of the state and maintaining existing infrastructure. In light of this, it is the priorities that determine whether funding is going to be allocated to a maintenance project or an expansion project. Several key factors play into determining what the priorities are.

The Congressional Budget Office conducted a review of the United States infrastructure spending from 1956 to 2017. This review determined that state and local governments had spent $15 trillion on transportation and water infrastructure during this time period. According to the CBO report, state and local governments across the nation have spent $6 trillion on initial capital investments. The remaining $9 trillion went to operation and maintenance costs. On a practical level, this means that for every $1.00 spent on capital infrastructure investment, states saw $1.50 in maintenance costs.

This data also suggests that every dollar of capital investment carries an additional price tag that Mississippi should account for when allocating infrastructure funds. Without funds being set aside exclusively for maintenance costs, proposals to increase taxes may later follow if most of the federal and state money ends up being spent on capital improvements. Furthermore, the cost of delayed maintenance also has an effect on citizens’ vehicles. In fact, poorly maintained roads cost Mississippi motorists $1.5 billion a year, at approximately $747 per driver.

Mississippi has made the mistake of going above its initial budget on infrastructure before. This led to funds being diverted from maintenance on existing roads. In 1987, the state legislature passed a bold vision for highway expansion in the state called the Four-Lane Highway Program. The legislation specified a several-year plan to expand and improve the state highway system through a series of road construction projects. The initial budget for the program was $1.6 billion, with plans to spend it in three phases from 1987-2001. The actual cost of these three phases later increased to $2.2 billion in 1994. The 1994 legislature also expanded the original project to include a fourth phase, which raised the total estimated project cost to $3.6 billion.  

Additionally, a report from the state legislature’s PEER Committee produced in 2000 found that the project completion estimates had increased again. This time, the project budget request had increased to $5 billion. The committee concluded that the drastic cost increases had been due to inaccurate cost estimates in the original plans. These inaccurate cost estimates did not properly account for the costs of bridges, the inflation rate, and some other factors.

PEER also found in the report that in the midst of trying to meet the additional costs, the Mississippi Department of Transportation diverted federal funds that could have been used on the maintenance of existing roads towards the expansion projects. By prioritizing the expansion projects over the maintenance of existing roads, MDOT had neglected to maintain many of the existing roads and incurred the additional repair costs that come with delayed maintenance.

Despite the initial target year of 2001, it was not until 11 years later in 2012 that MDOT reported all of the road projects in the initial proposal as complete, with the exception of a highway in the Port Gibson area that has not yet been completed. These circumstances are a strong reminder of the importance of properly allocating highway funds.

Mississippi may be in a better administrative position than it was in the 1980s and 1990s to deliver effectively planned highway projects. A report by the Office of the State Auditor found that MDOT has relatively efficient project procedures and processes. Despite the administrative improvements, it remains vital that the state has a highway upgrade and maintenance agenda that does not overextend the state budget by building highways that deplete funding for the maintenance of existing highways.

These highway funding questions could be confronting Mississippi soon. An infrastructure bill for $1.2 trillion recently passed the United States Senate with implications for higher taxes and more wasteful deficits. In the wake of this Senate passage, a flood of federal funding could be coming to the Mississippi if the bill passes the House of Representatives. According to the White House, Mississippi stands to receive approximately $3.5 billion in highway funding under the bill’s current form. This opens up the possibility for new projects that could go over budget and take away from maintenance funding if improperly planned.

If an influx of federal highway funding comes to Mississippi, state leaders would be responsible for ensuring that the federal funds don’t cause the state to overextend its highway budget. This federal funding would come from irresponsible federal spending that would already hurt Mississippi taxpayers by raising inflation and increasing the national debt. In light of this, the legislature should take great care to ensure that the state properly balances these funds between improvement projects and maintenance projects. That way, the state doesn’t have to make a choice to either divert funds between projects, leave existing roads in disrepair, or raise taxes on the taxpayers.

Quality roads and bridges are essential for the economy to grow and for the people of the state to expand and prosper. Rather than the problematic practice of expansion at the expense of maintenance, the state highway system should be grounded in a system that balances taxpayer resources. Mississippi needs dependable roads. Sound funding allocation practices are an important step to reach that need.