Thursday, December 13, 2007
SMART pushes priority roads
By SUE WATSON
Mississippi’s business and industrial leaders are organizing a push to get the state’s Vision 21 highway program busy now on building priority roads, said Bill Renick, a player in the new group Start Mississippi’s Approved Roads Today (SMART).
The acronym replaces AHEAD (Advocating Highways for Economic Advancement and Development), a group that formed to build grassroots support for the 1987 Highway bill passed by the State Legislature to build new highways in the state, Renick said.
“We want to get the roads prioritized in Vision 21 built quicker,” he said.
Vision 21 is legislation passed in 2002 that followed the 1987 program and prioritized roads to be built by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT).
“This is a totally new concept being used in some other states - Texas and Missouri - called P3s,” he said.
P3s are roads built through public/private partnerships. The private partners will be American companies, Renick said.
“Apparently there are substantial dollars in the private sector to invest in public infrastructure in America,” he said.
The concept calls for Mississippi to pledge a consistent amount of money yearly for a set number of years, which could be 30 years or longer to build priority roads the state, on its own, would not be able to build.
Costs to build highways have escalated due to rising energy prices since the 1987 Highway bill was passed. And the cost continues to rise at such a rate that roads built now will cost much less than they would if the state waits to build them, Renick said.
It took $1 million to build a mile of highway in 1987 and today costs $7.5 million per mile, he said.
“The idea here is the longer you wait the more it will cost per mile, and we need these new roads for economic development in the state,” Renick said.
“One of the two district engineers in the northern district said it has $31 million a year for new construction - enough to build about 4 miles of four-lane. So, as you can see in Vision 21, the 1,244 miles of top priority roads would take a long time to build.”
“Our idea is to take a level funding under public/private partnership where we pledge over 20 or thirty years. The private sector comes in and will build $1 billion worth of roads today.”
There are other safeguards built into the partnership. If the state used public bonds to build the priority roads, the state would hold the risk. Under this concept of alternative financing, the state would only risk the amount pledged each year.
Some of the new highways under this plan could become toll roads, Renick said.
For example, if the legislature decided to build new evacuation routes from the Gulf Coast counties to the interior - using Highway 49 as an example - a new Highway 49 could be built parallel to the existing Highway 49 and travellers could choose to use the toll road or travel the old road.
Mississippi’s contractors, engineers and workers would benefit from the building of the highways, Renick said. Every $1 spent means $4 to the economy, he said. Today’s cost - $7 billion - to build 1,244 miles of priority roads will bring $28 billion to the state’s economy.
So the private sector would come in and $7 billion in new construction would pump $28 billion into the economy.
Four-laning Highway 15 which runs north-south from the state line at Walnut to Harrison County and Highway 25 starting at the state line through Iuka and coming out at Amory are two suggested new projects.
“These are just ideas,” Renick said.
“We’re trying to build the interior of Mississippi today.”
SMART consists of business and community leaders and organizations including the Mississippi Economic Council, the Planning and Development Districts, several economic development districts, C.R.E.A.T.E. Foundation, MDOT, the Mississippi Manufacturer’s Association, all the electric power associations and distributors across the state, engineers and people in construction.
Numbers from this group met and passed a resolution in late November to form a statewide SMART, Renick said. The resolution called for attorneys with the Three Rivers Planning and Development District to draft up articles of organization that would include a 15-member board of directors - five from each district of MDOT.
The group plans to meet in December in Philadelphia and put together a model legislation patterned from other states.
New highways in the interior will benefit both new industry such as the Toyota and Nissan plants in Mississippi and existing industry with transportation needs like Ashley Furniture which has truck routes between Ripley and Ecru, Renick said.
“Most every expert will tell you, had it not been for the 1987 highway program, places like Nissan and Toyota would not be here in Mississippi today.”
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