New MDOT member faces learning curve

Published 3:09 pm Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The newest member of the Mississippi Transportation Commission will come on board at mid-legislative session and will have to get acclimated quickly.

Seven candidates are on the Jan. 11 special election ballot to replace the late Bill Minor, who was commissioner from north Mississippi. A runoff is Feb. 1.

Sen. Tom King, R-Petal, the Senate Highways Committee chairman, says there will be a learning curve for whoever is elected, even if that person is familiar with transportation issues. The time it takes to get caught up, King said, depends “on what kind of background they have and who they will have to give them counsel when it’s needed.”

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“They’ll have their work cut out for them that’s for sure. You’ll have two races — in January and November again. It’s going to be tough. They’re going to have to concentrate on the job itself more so than the election. The job is very important and it would be a learning experience for a new commissioner,” King said.

In 2010, the Legislature authorized more than $300 million in bonds to finance highways, bridges and other transportation projects. It included $90 million to improve highways leading to the Toyota plant near Blue Springs in northeast Mississippi.

The authorization also had $100 million to repair or replace state highway bridges, $20 million for local bridges and $20 million for county roads.

King said he sees continuing upgrading for bridges and road maintenance as the priorities in 2011.

No one expects an election-year Legislature to consider an increase in the fuel tax, which funds the highway program.

In addition to the special election for the northern district, Southern District Commissioner Wayne Brown has said he will not run again in 2011. Central District Commissioner Dick Hall is expected to run again.

Neither King nor Blake Wilson, president of Mississippi Economic Council, a staunch proponent of better highways, expect any drop-off in support for transportation programs even with leadership influx at the Department of Transportation.

“One cannot stop the business of government due to challenges, either transitional or otherwise,” Wilson said. “We must press on with the business of the state — and part of that business is transportation.

“It is one of the primary public policy arteries in delivering the lifeblood of our state — in attracting industry and business and in providing jobs to literally thousands who work on our projects. I have seen the benefit in recent years of a long-range highway development strategy that opened up accessibility to our state,” he said.

King, who has been mentioned as a candidate for the southern district transportation post, said the leadership at MDOT will have to reach out more to the public to explain what has been accomplished and what they need to do.

“It may take someone going to the different counties and giving them the message on what they have done in their area on specific projects. There’s a lot of work ahead of us. I feel like we’ll just have to keep on keeping on with the money that we have and do the best we can,” King said.

Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association, told the Mississippi Business Journal that his group, like many others, stays on edge during tough economic times.

Pepper said the fuel tax that funds the road and bridge program is “is essentially a user fee since you make a decision to use roads and bridges.”

He said the funds “always come under attack because there is usually a balance, sometimes significant, in order to use for federal matches.”

“Outside of our industry, most people just look at these balances as large sums of money not being used. Being an election year, I would say that protecting the fuel tax user fee … would be a priority,” Pepper said.