TUPELO • Road work continues, but the Mississippi Department of Transportation is bracing for a decline in revenues linked to COVID-19.
MDOT is funded through taxes collected on gasoline sales. But with social life largely on halt, some businesses closed and others shifting to remote work, there are far fewer vehicles on the road. And that means fewer gallons of gas sold.
John Caldwell is the elected transportation commissioner for northern Mississippi. He said MDOT leadership knows that a revenue drop is inevitable.
“There are a lot of road miles, a lot of fuel consumption that is not going to be there,” said Caldwell. “It will definitely impact our budget. It will impact our ability to do as much as we want to do.”
Tax collections lag, so the hit has not happened yet, but Caldwell expects some kind of revenue dip to linger into the year.
“It will impact us this construction cycle and into the summer and into the fall,” Caldwell said. “And then we’ll see.”
MDOT is led by three elected commissioners representing different regions of the state. Some business groups and political groups have advocated for a higher fuel tax in order to funnel more money into road repair and construction across Mississippi.
At 18.4 cents per gallon, Mississippi has one of the country’s lowest gas taxes. That tax rate has not been raised since 1987.
But even with some tight finances looming, Caldwell said work goes on and he plans to keep it that way.
“Nothing is being slowed down. No one is stopping any projects. No one is stopping any bids,” the first term transportation commissioner said. “We are moving ahead.”
In Northeast Mississippi, work remains ongoing involving a stretch of Highway 15 through Pontotoc County.
There is also ongoing work with Appalachian Regional Commission funding involving so-called “Corridor V,” a network of state and federal highways from Batesville in Mississippi on up through northern Alabama to the state line.
Ground crews and contractors remain in the field, but Caldwell said a little less than half the state is now working from home.
The inability to gather around a table and talk things out may slow down engineering efforts some, but Caldwell doesn’t think the impact is significant.
“It cramps our style a little bit,” said Caldwell. “It doesn’t bring us to a halt.”
Some federal officials, including President Donald Trump, have floated the idea of a federal infrastructure bill to boost economic vitality once the immediate threat posed by COVID-19 lifts or abates.
U.S Sen. Roger Wicker, a Tupelo Republican, supports this kind of a bill and told the Daily Journal he’d like to see it “sooner rather than later.”
If such a bill comes, Caldwell thinks Mississippi can put it to use.
Said Caldwell, “We’re in desperate need of the federal government to get that infrastructure bill completed and passed.”