By NATHAN GREGORY
Mississippi Transportation Commissioners Dick Hall, Tom King and Mike Tagert proposed ideas for improving state transportation centers while preserving environmental integrity at the 2012 Transportation and Economic Symposium Tuesday.
The symposium continues today at the Bost Extension Center on the Mississippi State University campus.
MSU Vice President for Research and Economic Development David Shaw said one of the main goals of the symposium is to unite representatives from many sectors in a discussion on the importance of transportation as a priority in the state and to brainstorm solutions for growing the state’s transportation and infrastructure in an anemic economic climate.
“A couple of the most important (goals) are to be able to bring our elected officials, our people from a number of different agencies (including) economic development (and) the (Mississippi) Department of Transportation together with academia and the private sector to all come together and talk about transportation as a priority in a very limited funding environment,” Shaw said. “We have to develop our case for why this is so incredibly important for the state. (We) also (want) to bring these folks together and to have some forums in which they can actually talk about challenges and to be able to come up with more approaches that can be very innovative and creative in the solutions that can come forward that maybe one individual or one entity can’t come up with.”
He said among the challenges are meeting many different needs.
“Economic growth really relies so much on having a top-tier transportation system. That is not just highways, but it’s rail; it’s waterways; it’s air; it’s all of the above. How those can work together is a challenge, but it’s an opportunity because Mississippi is very blessed with all these modes of transportation,” Shaw said. “Funding is obviously the number one challenge everyone is faced with, especially in the kind of fiscal climates we’re in from the state and financial level, (and) that is going to be a huge challenge. The third one would be the sustainability setup. How do we make sure we’re doing what we need to protect the environment ... but at the same time enable transportation growth and development?”
Hall, Central District Mississippi Transportation Commissioner, referenced the passing of the AHEAD Four-Lane Highway Program during his tenure as a state legislator and how that legislation was able to help the city of Starkville and Oktibbeha County economically to illustrate the importance of continuing to find ways to spur development through creating more opportunities for transport.
“Who in this room today could argue that the paving of the four lanes of Highway 82 and Highway 25 did not do wonders for Starkville and Oktibbeha County?” Hall asked. “Because of the political courage and vision of some people 25 years ago, we’ve been enjoying the fruits of their labor. But that legislation we passed in 1987 has some critical omissions. There was no provision for maintenance and no anticipation of inflation. What we’re forced to do now is take some dollars that were going to construction and place them in maintenance.”
Hall then proposed potential ideas for generating revenue to create more avenues for transportation.
“(The) possible revenue sources (can be) vehicle rental tax, tire tax, vehicle registration fee increase, driver’s license fee, vehicle title fee increase, etc. Most of these would probably not generate enough revenue to make it worth the political fight you have to go through to enact them. The most obvious source of new revenue would be an increase to the present cents per gallon paid at the pump,” Hall said. “A penny increase in Mississippi’s fuel tax would generate $22 million annually. The latest suggestion aware of revenue ... is vehicle miles traveled fee — the next generation, if you will, of a user pay theory. The technology is now available to do this. To implement it would cost an awful lot of money, and you’ve still got to answer that very serious question regarding user privacy.”
King, the Southern District commissioner, cited the need to better connect state interstate highway systems to ports.
“Ocean cargo is expected to double in 20 years. There are many challenges such as international competitiveness ... Railroads, trucking, distribution centers are ports that meet national needs. An increase in cargo at our ports comes from an increase in truck traffic from our highway system. That’s what we’re dealing with now ... We’ve got our hands full, but it’s all about economic development. It’s all jobs,” King said. “We need to look at advanced technology and innovation to better meet transportation needs ... We will continue to keep safety as our number one priority with an emphasis on sound engineering and public education information. Establishing stable funding of our transportation system is key. We’ve got to continue to seriously (study) transportation financing. The future of Mississippi depends on economic development — bringing jobs and money to our state.”
Northern District Commissioner Mike Tagert highlighted the uniqueness of industry in the Southeast as well as the need for greater access to rail transportation in the state.
“The Southeast U.S. represents the world’s third largest economy. That is a breathtaking understanding to what our needs are. They should be substantial. They should be significant. Besides being the most the most preferred region in the U.S. for foreign investment, there are several things we have which go hand in hand with some assets that are noteworthy ... One is that we have the lowest utilities in the U.S. That’s a tremendous economic development advantage,” Tagert said. “We have people with can-do attitudes ... and they understand what we’re trying to do is identify the ways those people can get into the economic developing conversation. So often our local economic developers ... could be overlooked in the conversation and not have the opportunity to bring in a prospect and tell them about their prospective sites.”
Tagert also cited several trends in transportation in need of being observed if there is to be successful development in the state’s future.
“Distribution centers and transportation hubs continue to strategically locate. Access to rail is no longer just an advantage for a community,” Tagert said. “It’s a necessity for a community to be part of these large discussions. Rail is no longer optional.”
Attendees of the symposium also heard from Skip Scaggs, industry developer for Mississippi Development Authority; MDA executive director Don Allee; p3 Elevations President Whit Hughes; William Adair of William C. Adair Development Co.; Golden Triangle Regional Airport Executive Director Mike Hainsey and Itawamba County Development Council executive director Greg Deakle.
Attendees for today’s portion of the symposium will hear a roundtable discussion from Scaggs, Rob Martinez of Norfolk Southern Railroad and Bruce Lambert of the Institute for Trade and Transportation Studies.