Bridges at risk: Counties could lose state funds

Published 12:30 am Sunday, March 15, 2009

More than a dozen Mississippi counties soon could lose $9.2 million intended for repairs to their aging bridges if they don’t start spending the money faster.

Legislation awaiting Gov. Haley Barbour’s signature would allow the Mississippi Department of Transportation to review counties’ use of the Local System Bridge Program funding. If counties don’t start bridge replacements or repairs within two years of receiving funds, MDOT could redistribute the money among other eligible projects.

According to the most recent MDOT figures, about 19 counties stand to lose funds if projects aren’t started by July 1, when the legislation is slated to go into effect should Barbour sign it. Barbour has until Tuesday to decide whether to sign the bill.

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“We don’t want to take their money away,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Warner McBride said. “The objective here is safety.”

Many of the LSBP-eligible structures are found on rural roads spanning small streams, creeks or ditches. As of last fall, 1,563 bridges in the state were eligible for the funding.

Hinds County stands to lose the more than $1 million allocated more than two years ago but has not been spent, based on MDOT figures.

Madison County could lose $654,000. Rankin County does not have any unspent funding to forfeit.

McBride, D-Courtland, said he proposed the bill to give counties an added incentive for putting their projects in motion.

“We’ve got bridges that need to be repaired,” he said. “If these counties won’t do it, then we’ll give the money to counties that will.”

Counties will be able to submit explanations for why money isn’t being spent and could hold onto it if they have a legitimate excuse, he said.

Sen. Doug Davis, R-Hernando, was one of 16 senators who voted against the bill.

“I understand the concern,” said Davis. “But I think different counties have different reasons for not spending the money and they should be evaluated on an individual basis.”

DeSoto County stands to lose more than $200,000 in unspent funds.

“I think every project is different,” Davis said. “We didn’t hear from the counties to get their side of the story.”

Hinds County Supervisor Peggy Calhoun said she is concerned about losing funding but supports the legislation.

Many of the problems she has seen in her county have involved securing rights of way for projects.

“Counties should be allowed to document why funds haven’t been spent,” she said. “Some of them have been delayed because of negotiations with landowners.”

Hinds County hires contractors to secure its right of way land, she said. She hopes the county can follow up with those contractors and pressure them to move faster to avoid any loss of funding.

Meanwhile, Lauderdale County stands to lose more than $2.5 million, more than any other county, MDOT figures show.

Lauderdale State Aid Engineer Terrell Temple said his county is working to obligate all of its funding and should not see any taken away should the bill become law.

“Plans for several jobs have been finalized and rights of way to allow the projects to proceed to construction have been obtained on most,” Temple said. “In the next few days, the county will be advertising for bids to obligate the funds.”

The state program initially was funded with $20 million a year from the general fund. In recent years, lawmakers have switched to using bonds.

McBride said he thinks it’s harder to allow a county to hold onto money when the state may be paying as much as 5 percent interest on bonds.

Many transportation officials, including State Aid Engineer Brooks Miller, favor the legislation. In a recent meeting before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Miller told lawmakers he is frustrated that some counties are not spending their money.

“A lot of times, we’ll hear from counties that they are trying to save up funds for a big project,” McBride said.

Miller told lawmakers he does not think that’s a smart way to use this program.

“There are plenty of projects out there. They should spend the money on projects they can afford and find another way to finance something that big,” Miller said in response to a hypothetical question about a county saving funding for a costlier bridge project.

In cases with extenuating circumstances, Miller said he would be willing to give counties a one-year extension.

Miller said he has notified the counties that stand to lose money and he’s prepared to begin taking funds back should the legislation become law.

The bill is House Bill 1320.