Sam R. Hall

Sam R. Hall is executive editor of the Daily Journal.

Mississippi is about to receive approximately $3.6 billion in federal infrastructure money — $1 billion more than the last round of funding. Already state lawmakers are rubbing their hands together in anticipation of how they can earmark this money for projects in their districts to secure future votes.

But lawmakers might want to pump the brakes. This isn’t a pot of magic money. It comes with stipulations. More importantly, if spent haphazardly, it could damage the longterm planning and upkeep of our roads, bridges and other physical infrastructure.

Brad White, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, recently sat down with the Daily Journal to discuss the federal infrastructure bill. Key to the discussion was “what this money is” and “what this money is not.”

Here’s what it’s not: An economic stimulus package. Unlike the millions upon millions of federal COVID-related funds Congress has sent our way, infrastructure funding is not a pool of money to be held by the state and doled out as state leaders see fit.

Here’s what it is: Most is normal infrastructure spending, as Sen. Roger Wicker has repeatedly pointed out.

Congress must reauthorize the U.S. Department of Transportation every five years. In doing so, they appropriate billions of dollars in spending that are then allotted to the states. To access these funds, the state must submit a project and gain approval based on DOT guidelines.

The recently passed Infrastructure Bill included regular reauthorization spending along with additional transportation funding sought by President Biden.

During the last reauthorization bill, Mississippi received $2.6 billion to be used over a five-year period. With the new infrastructure bill, Mississippi will receive $3.6 billion. And while that’s $1 billion more, most of that is still tied to federal approval.

There is no secret that Mississippi has a lot of infrastructure maintenance needs. White explains that in recent years MDOT moved from capacity projects — building or expanding infrastructure based on traffic and population growth — to maintenance projects — upkeep of roads and bridges in dire need of repair.

Over the past two years, the Legislature has provided additional MDOT funding through state lottery proceeds. That has allowed MDOT to take on more projects. With the new infrastructure bill, MDOT will be able to expand their work even more, including focusing on capacity projects and new construction.

But if the past is any indicator, that spending could be hamstrung by overzealous lawmakers. For instance, the Senate last session earmarked between $250,000 and $500,000 in specific projects per Senate district. By writing these specific projects into the MDOT budget, it meant MDOT had no other choice but to spend those funds on those projects, regardless of what other needs might exist.

Too, the Legislature did not do due diligence on the projects. Some projects did not meet DOT standards, so those funds are essentially frozen until the next session.

MDOT has a master plan for both capacity and maintenance projects. It is based on data such as traffic counts, population, infrastructure age, growth projections and more. This master plan is developed by engineers in an agency run by three elected officials who also appoint the agency director. In White, they have a good one.

These are the people who should be deciding infrastructure projects, not 174 lawmakers who are more focused on their individual districts instead of the bigger statewide picture. The Legislature should skip the earmarks and the pork, and instead let the experts and leaders at MDOT do the job their jobs.

SAM R. HALL is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at sam.hall@djournal.com or follow @samrhall on Twitter.

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