Mississippi’s Worsening Roads & Closure of Local Bridges Are a Lesson for Prioritizing Infrastructure

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

In Mississippi, the condition of aged local bridges has crystallized the need for regional and national infrastructure resources and dedicated funding, but it is also becoming a tale of two cities: lawmakers in a state capital in the Deep South struggling to improve a transportation network and the makers of federal infrastructure policy in Washington, D.C., still needing to address America’s infrastructure problems.

In The Magnolia State, closed bridges in local jurisdictions have created a wave of media attention. Over 1,000 timber bridges were inspected last year and will be reinspected this year, along with an additional 600 more in this 12-month inspection cycle. Of the more than 100 bridges that were initially closed in April because of a proclamation declaring a state of emergency by Gov. Phil Bryant, over 60 percent have since been reopened, according to Harry Lee James, State Aid Engineer for the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction.

James, a professional engineer, is a zealot for inspecting and repairing local and county bridges and helping ramp up the budgets and professionals needed to get the job done. He retired from state government and decided to come back after 10 years. When the Americans for Transportation Mobility (ATM) Coalition spoke to him, he had just closed seven bridges in two days.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) receives about 50 percent of its funding from the feds and, when available, federal-aid monies assist counties in keeping their transportation grids up to par. Just like with national travel routes that were established during the 1950s — from President Eisenhower’s push to connect America and keep its citizens safe via the Interstate Highway System — Mississippi’s infrastructure needs modernization.

James points out that the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction doesn’t own the local bridge assets but has taken responsibility for accumulating and compiling important data, working on the issue daily, and doing quality assurance to make sure the bridges are compliant with federal requirements.

The national infrastructure conversation and the ethics of engineers who inspect bridges, and work diligently to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare, are intersecting in Mississippi. The backstory is providing both a window into the human side of the issue and the politics of it as well.

How Does Mississippi Point to What Communities Across America Are Facing?

All over the United States, stressed infrastructure (from highways and airports, to dams and waste-water facilities) is becoming a focus and triggering grassroots awareness. And it is setting in legislators’ laps the task of establishing sustainable transportation revenue resources during an era in which the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) identifies a federal $2 trillion investment gap regarding the nation’s infrastructure, which has received a grade of D+.

In Mississippi, over 12 percent of bridges are considered structurally deficient, exceeding the national average of 9 percent, according to Mississippi resident Jacob Forrester, a civil and environmental engineer and an Advocacy Captain and Past President of the Mississippi Section of ASCE. He is also overseeing the Mississippi Report Card, which is expected to come out in the next several months.

“We’ve got a pretty good network, but there are certainly some areas where the transportation network has failed and is failing and will continue to fail without the reinvestment there,” explains Forrester. He adds that Mississippi’s local bridges are not the only weak link.

Forrester provides a snapshot: The state’s transportation network involves about 157,000 lane miles, with 28,000 owned and maintained by MDOT. About 60 percent of traffic travels those lane miles and 90 percent of commercial trucking traffic follows those lane miles. There are also roads under federal and local jurisdiction.

Over the last 10 years, the number of lane miles in fair or better condition decreased by 2,467 lane miles, and the number of roadway miles currently in poor or very poor condition increased by 3,941 miles, which is about 390 lane miles deteriorating annually and, cumulatively, this kind of decline is significant.

“When people have to change their routes due to roads or bridges or road closures, it costs additional money and ASCE has estimated that the average Mississippi driver pays an extra $705 a year in extra vehicle operation costs due to failing infrastructure,” adds Forrester.

But he added that he is also concerned about how the bridge closures affect commerce and the most vulnerable in the state, noting that having a transportation system that ensures that businesses can move goods efficiently and people can get to their jobs, shop for products, take care of their families, and get good healthcare is crucial.

He explained: “If [it would come to the point] we’re sending an ambulance out to get a person who has had a cardiac event and they get to a bridge and it’s posted that you can’t get past this bridge because of the weight of the vehicle and they have to find an alternative route, those few seconds can literally mean the difference between life and death. Those kinds of concerns are among the biggest concerns engineers have.”

So states like Mississippi are grappling for funds. In 1987, state legislators passed a highway bill and raised the fuel tax but, this summer, elected officials sidestepped a gas-tax increase, and a dearth of hundreds of millions of dollars in needed revenue lingers. This, despite Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy findings that a majority of respondents in varying regions of the state supported a gas-tax increase to improve roads and bridges, as well as a majority saying that a legislator supporting a gas-tax increase would not definitively stop them from voting for that elected leader.

The gas-tax impasse, however, doesn’t just exist in Mississippi. The issue has regional and federal ramifications, too, as the nation’s roads, bridges, public-transit, tunnels and rail networks are being challenged to do more with less investment. Even though the Highway Trust Fund is being depleted and the federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, some members of Congress bristle about this user fee being increased. Other integrative solutions include private-sector and heightened state involvement, streamlining permitting, new financing and funding programs, and the role of technology.

Mike Pepper, Executive Director of the Mississippi Road Builders’ Association, and Forrester are pleased that lawmakers galvanized to cement new policies for revenue streams for needed transportation; however, both think that the $200 million bill is not a long-term and comprehensive solution.

“I think the story Mississippi tells is a cautionary tale for the rest of the country,” says Forrester. “Mississippi is a susceptible state, as a general rule, and without federal support and that federal action, it stagnates our ability to begin improving, and so I think an infrastructure bill is very important. I am glad to see that President Trump has been talking about this and it gets lots of discussion and I’m hopeful Congress will act on it sooner than later. I want to emphasize the importance of infrastructure investment for a state like Mississippi, whether that’s federal, state or local, because it needs to continue to improve its economic and socioeconomic conditions.”

Mississippi’s bridges point to a fiscal and a societal lesson. Failing bridges reflect how essential it is for both Congress and regional lawmakers to develop long-term funding and financing mechanisms that will help revitalize the U.S. transportation network, a fading international standard-bearer, because the nation’s economic opportunities and the safety of the American public count on it.

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