Dick Hall has earned his gravitas after 24 years in the Legislature and 19 years as central commissioner for Mississippi’s Department of Transportation. A Republican from way back, nobody questions his conservative credentials.
Yet Hall is completely at odds with the Republican triumvirate running our state government. He will tell you it’s crazy that we won’t raise the state gas tax to properly maintain our roads.
In the last five years, 26 states have raised the gas tax, but Mississippi hasn’t raised the tax in 35 years.
I recently heard Commissioner Hall speak at the Stennis-Capitol Press Luncheon. He makes a persuasive argument for raising the tax.
“The situation reminds me of the story told in chapter five of the Book of Exodus. When Pharoah gave the taskmasters and foremen this order: ‘You shall no longer supply the people with straw for brick making as you have previously done. Let them go and gather straw themselves. Yet you shall levy upon them the same quota of bricks as they have previously made. Do not reduce it. They are lazy. Increase the work for the men so that they keep their mind on it and pay no attention to their lying words.’
“Today I am going to tell you what some in the Legislature will say are my lying words. Because if they chose to believe them, they would be faced with the reality that straw is necessary and the Legislature would have to actually get off its butt and do something.
“When I tell them that over 1,000 deficient bridges in this state need to be seriously repaired or replaced at a cost of some $2.5 billion and that almost 5,000 lane miles of highway need serious repair and reconstruction costing a billion dollars, do they think that we’re lying? Or do they just not care? How can you possibly pretend that nothing needs to be done?
“Two weeks ago, I see chief Huff back there, head of our enforcement, he was trying to keep a bridge open on Highway 32 in Bolivar County. Had it posted. Nothing larger than a large pick-up truck was supposed to go over that bridge. Well, there were trucks full of grain, farm equipment and school buses ignoring the posting and crossing the bridge. We had to close the bridge, which is very inconvenient for some folks and very expensive for farmers up there because the detour is over 40 miles.
“Well, you may say, ‘That’s a rural area. That’s not that big a deal.’ But let me tell you what. I was sitting at my desk the other day and something crossed my desk that caught my eye. There are three bridges on U.S. Highway 51 that were built in 1929. It caught my eye because that’s the day my dad graduated in engineering from Mississippi A&M and he would tell you that those bridges were designed for a maximum life of 50 years. We hope we’re going to be able to begin replacing those in 2019 when they will be 90 years old on a U.S. highway.
“Let’s talk about the straw or the lack thereof for just a minute. The last time the fuel tax was adjusted in the state of Mississippi was 1987, 30 years ago. Since that time, the price of materials that go into the construction and maintenance of your highway system, such as dirt, has risen. We move a lot of dirt. In 1987 it cost a dollar a cubic yard to move that dirt. Today it costs six dollars a cubic yard. Steel, concrete, asphalt . . . all of those materials, since 1987, have gone up, a composite, of 462 percent.
“When some of my friends in the Legislature run for office they tell you that government ought to be run like a business. Now you tell me a business you know of that could have material cost increases of 462 percent and a revenue schedule set 30 years ago and operate that thing as a success. I defy you to come up with one.
“Reason Foundation ran a national survey and found the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) is doing the eighth best job in the nation of managing the resources available. A special committee of your state senate, the Mississippi Economic Council aided by the Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi and the Legislature’s PEER Committee all conducted in-depth studies on MDOT. The PEER Committee literally moved into our building and looked in every book we have. And all of those concluded that MDOT needs more money.
“Speaking of money. I fail to understand why some folks don’t realize that this is an important economic issue. That’s why I will debate with anyone that the most significant economic development event in this state in the last half century was the 1987 four-lane program. We constructed a highway system that was judged to be number one in the Mid-South and number six in the United States. We had industries that had never before considered the state of Mississippi begin to look at us. Without that updated system of highways, there would be no Nissan, no Toyota, no Severstal or hundreds of other businesses that have since decided to locate in Mississippi. To allow this multi-billion-dollar investment to deteriorate to the level we have is just plain dumb.
“It’s a safety issue. It’s a convenience issue. It’s an economic issue. But to some it’s simply a political issue. The last MEC poll conducted by Mason-Dixon found Mississippians would support increasing taxes and fees to fix our roads and bridges by an overwhelming 65 to 29 percent.
“Only two other states, Oklahoma and Alaska, have been as reluctant as Mississippi to raise the gas tax – both oil-rich states. Twenty-six states have raised taxes on motor fuels in the last four years, eight this year. That includes Tennessee and South Carolina, both deep red states dominated by fiscal conservatives. The governor of South Carolina repealed the gas tax and the Republican majority Legislature overrode his veto. The South Carolina law increases the fuel tax by 12 cents over six years.”
I quote Dick Hall verbatim because I can’t say it any better. I would add that as we delay, the ultimate cost goes up dramatically. Meanwhile, drivers pay far more for tires, rims, shocks, struts, alignments and a dozen other vehicle maintenance costs caused by poor roads.
To run the state government, you must first get elected. Promising not to raise taxes sounds great to most people. So such promises are made. But what’s the point of getting elected to run the state only to run it into the ground? Getting elected requires politics, but running a state requires statesmanship and leadership.
Dick Hall has leadership and statesmanship. It’s a tragedy that these qualities seem to be lacking among other state leaders.