Analysis: Failing bridges enter into Mississippi's economic development debate

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Mention highway safety and people have all sorts of ideas of what that means.

To the Highway Patrol, it suggests expanding the ranks of state troopers. For the Mississippi Department of Transportation, it's a well-maintained road system. For Mothers Against Drunk Driving, getting intoxicated drivers off the roads is the highest priority. And there are those against texting, tweeting or talking on cellphones.

However, if you ask Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons and Transportation Commissioner Tom King, people want to know about bridges — the ones that have fallen down and the ones that might — and who is going to fix them.

"There's a serious problem out there with bridges," said King, who lives in Petal near Hattiesburg. He represents the southern district on the three-member Transportation Commission.

"We're having to post a lot of bridges, lowering the weight limits, and that's affect farmers in north Mississippi and loggers in my part of the state. Now you're talking about economic impact," King said.

He said it would cost $2 billion to repair or replace hundreds of state and local bridges. That's money the state's unlikely to provide.

Mississippi Department of Transportation officials say the state has 700 bridges with weight limits, forcing loggers, farmers and others driving heavy vehicles to seek alternate routes that are often longer and more expensive. The Delta Council economic development group, for example, has complained about weight-limited bridges on Mississippi Highway 6 between Batesville and Clarksdale.

Officials say it would cost about $700 million to replace just those posted bridges.

"There are serious concerns from all areas of the state," said Simmons, a Democrat from Cleveland. "The impact is hardest on our agriculture community and businesses that cannot travel those highways where bridges are posted."

The Mississippi Economic Council is looking at the state's transportation infrastructure but vice president Scott Waller said the research is expected to take up to a year, pushing deep into 2015 after numbers are crunched.

"This is both data-driven and market-driven research," Waller said.

Simmons said there's an immediate need.

"We're struggling for resources under the existing (funding) formula now and we haven't raised taxes in two decades," Simmons said. "I'm not saying we should raise taxes. I am willing to wait to see when the MEC comes with but in 24 months things are going to get worse for residents who can't get to where they need to be."

King, a former state senator and transportation committee chairman, said funding is needed.

"That great program we launched in 1987 had money for new roads but maintenance was left out," King said. "We are paying for that now."

Lawmakers worked into the final days of the 2014 legislative session on a deal to fund transportation projects. They put an extra $32 million into a program that helps local governments pay for road construction — but only if tax collections continue coming in at a good pace. If the economy falters, the money would not be spent.

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