Sid Salter

SID SALTER

No matter where you drive in most of Mississippi in the next few weeks, you will encounter new and challenging potholes thanks to the Great Ice Strom of 2021.

Last week’s severe winter weather will make a lasting impact on Mississippi’s already compromised infrastructure system – particularly on roads and bridges – and will exacerbate the need for more comprehensive means to repair and restore the state’s overall infrastructure system.

Mississippi isn’t alone in the struggle to improve infrastructure. Congress faces some difficult decisions not just on roads and bridges but on the future of the nation’s pipelines, airports, urban and rural water systems. Another extremely vital part of America’s necessary infrastructure truly hasn’t yet been fully built the first time in our state – broadband access – but the need for it has been brought home to everyone in the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Funding approaches have

been piecemeal

Funding for rebuilding and restoring the state’s infrastructure has been evolving. In 2018 during a special legislative session, state lawmakers passed the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act that will direct an estimated $120 million in internet use tax diversions to county and city infrastructure needs.

Also, 2018 saw the adoption of a state lottery that for the first 10 years will send at least $80 million to shore up state roads and bridges. That same special session saw portions of the state’s BP oil spill settlement directed toward infrastructure needs.

But what hasn’t happened – despite a great deal of debate involving the state’s business community – is any legislative movement on increases in both federal and state fuel taxes to fund future highway construction and maintenance at a time when both national and state infrastructure stands in inarguable need to repair and improvement.

Gas tax remains unchanged despite more efficient cars, people driving less

Mississippi’s 18.4 cents per gallon state gas tax (CPG) is a flat tax. When we paid $3.965 a gallon for gas in 2008, the tax was 18.4 CPG. When we pay $2.35 per gallon at the pump this week, the state tax is still 18.4 CPG. The only way the state takes in more revenue in gas taxes is for the volume of gas consumed to increase – and automobiles are now manufactured to require less fuel consumption that a decade ago.

The state fuel tax rates haven’t increased since 1987, the last time the state was particularly serious about improving our highway system.

The federal fuel tax is likewise 18.4 cents per gallon and haven’t changed since 1993. Neither the federal nor state fuel taxes have kept pace with inflation. Indexed for inflation, both federal and state fuel tax rates would be 31 cents per gallon and far closer to actually funding what’s needed to build and adequately maintain the national and state infrastructures.

The state hasn’t raised gas taxes, but the current legislative session has seen debate on a statewide gas tax referendum bill and on local or municipal option sales taxes. Those bills are considered long shots unless tied to state income tax elimination legislation or phased reduction.

At the federal level, with Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, there is already less than veiled signals coming from the Biden administration that an attempt will be made to raise the federal gas tax. Congress has already had to make recent infusions in the $141 billion range to prop up the struggling federal Highway Trust Fund.

The irony is that with recent gains in Mississippi in road and bridge funds and at least serious discussion of raising the state’s gas tax, rising energy prices and federal spending on the latest COVID-19 stimulus bill may tamp down that momentum along with reduced consumption at higher prices. The only way the state takes in more revenue in gas taxes is for the volume of gas consumed to increase – and automobiles are now manufactured to require less fuel consumption that a decade ago.

The bottom line is that every rural blacktop road, city streets, state highways, and bridges across Mississippi – along with airport runways, municipal and rural water systems, and other infrastructure features – took a beating during the ice storm. Multiple days of heavy ice and low temperatures have made an aging and deteriorating infrastructure even worse at every level of government in the state.

A little hot mix here and a little cold mix there won’t fix the damage done across our state.

SID SALTER is a syndicated Mississippi columnist. Readers can contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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