A crew with Lehman-Roberts Company works on Highway 278 in Lafayette County, Mississippi. The project received federal funds, and highlights that transportation improvements are a shared responsibility in America. (Photo courtesy of Roger Hickam)

States’ Transportation Revenues Hit By COVID-19: Mississippi Asphalt Company Says Long-Term Federal Funding A Must

Federal leaders are discussing and wrangling over federal infrastructure investment. But in places such as Mississippi, a lack of sustainable funding directly impacts businesses and communities facing ongoing transportation challenges.

Because of the economic slowdown triggered by an unrelenting and rollercoaster pandemic, questions have emerged about how financially impacted states are going to fund needed projects. States rely on fuel user fees and different revenue streams for transportation improvements, and also on the private sector and federal dollars.

At the end of April and in connection with revenue challenges linked to COVID-19, the Mississippi Transportation Commission announced it would temporarily delay bidding state-funded paving projects while gathering “additional data to gauge the magnitude of the declining revenue.” A letting calendar showed multiple projects listed as withdrawn for April 28.

“Although it looks like the drop in revenue may not be as severe as initially thought, revenue shortfalls are at the forefront for state departments of transportation,” says National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA) President and CEO Audrey Copeland, Ph.D., P.E. To help ensure a critical American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) backstop that has been requested, as well as a multi-year, surface-transportation reauthorization, NAPA launched two campaigns, which resulted in around 3,000 messages sent to Capitol Hill.

All Politics is Local

For regional economies and maintaining surface transportation, these decisions can be prickly because infrastructure improvements in the United States are a shared responsibility. Lingering concerns about an insolvent Highway Trust Fund, which helps provide federal dollars for states, tribal regions and territories, have not been resolved by Congress.

“We’re not only hopeful for a long-term federal investment package — we’re begging for one,” says Mike Pepper, Executive Director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association. “These years of robbing Peter to pay Paul is not doing it. I’ve never been on so many business calls [during COVID-19] in my whole life and that includes with people in D.C. In Mississippi, we have hundreds of millions of dollars needed to upgrade our infrastructure.”

Fewer projects mean less work for American businesses as well as lagging infrastructure improvements, says Michael Ellis, P.E., Vice President of Construction for the 81-year-old, family-rooted Lehman-Roberts Company, which is a hot asphalt producer and paver. The enterprise is based in Memphis, but also has a sister business, Memphis Stone & Gravel Company. Lehman-Roberts has seven asphalt plants, two in West Tennessee and five in North Mississippi. Memphis Stone & Gravel Company has four plant/mining sites with one in West Tennessee and three in North Mississippi. They are members of NAPA and the National Sand Stone & Gravel Association (NSSGA).

“National transportation funding is really critical. A lot of what we are doing on the resurfacing is almost too late because of the budget constraints of the different states that we work in. They are not able to keep up with the maintenance needs of resurfacing so a lot of projects that we bid and get can be later in the cycle [on upkeep] so a lot of money is spent to repair it just before we get to resurface it,” says Ellis. “The critical need is there and there is a lot more out there that needs to be done now, but because of different things that the states are dealing with overall, it’s not easy to keep up with the maintenance. We’re really all [the public] paying the price because when we go to do a project, it costs more to do it because it’s been too long on overlay on surfacing and it’s really taking a toll on the infrastructure.”

A loss in funding triggers fallout. Without infrastructure investment, there are fewer jobs, softer economies, dwindling capacity, unaddressed safety concerns and backlogs that affect mobility and congestion. Several years back, Lehman-Roberts worked on 17 newly paved miles of Interstate 269 in Mississippi, which forms a loop around Memphis through Mississippi and Tennessee. It was tied to boosting economic development and easing trucking traffic.

But Ellis says there has been a definitive decline in new construction. From any point in his life to today — earning a college degree in civil engineering, working at the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) and being a front-line executive at Lehman-Roberts for 11 years — he has seen states and a nation stretched by less revenue to invest in infrastructure.

In examining America’s rural roads and bridges, some of which have significant deficiencies and high fatality rates, Mississippi ranked seventh, at 24 percent, of rural pavements in poor condition. This came from a recent report from the national transportation research nonprofit TRIP.

Lehman-Roberts works in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas on paving, repaving and resurfacing projects that include airports, commercial warehouses, city streets and state DOT projects, such as highways. Mining its own aggregate also helps make it profitable.

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