Are we bankrupt?

Bill Miles

The late Congressman Jamie Whitten said, “If we allow our roads to deteriorate, our bridges to dilapidate and our rivers and harbors to silt, we can have all the money in the world and still be bankrupt.” I heard him make that statement so many times that I could have quoted it as well as he. In fact when my legislative service enabled me to have an influential position (Chairman of Transportation) I did include those words in such events as the opening of the Natchez Trace Parkway from the Mississippi River to Nashville and on October 6, 2006 when I participated (along with U. S. Senator Trent Lott, then Congressman Roger Wicker, Speaker Billy McCoy, our three Transportation Commissioners and hundreds of interested people) on the opening of a segment in DeSoto County connecting the first leg of U. S. Interstate 69 in Mississippi with I-55 and U. S 61 near Memphis (269). While I hear candidates who want to get or to hold power in our state and nation advocate for roads and similar services, I hear little about how they plan to achieve results. My entire adult career(s) involve promoting transportation. I was present when some of the bridges spanning the Tenn-Tom Waterway opened in the early 1980s. I stood beside Congressman Jamie Whitten and Northern District Highway Commissioner Zack Stewart on several occasions. I was part of the lead car that traveled from the Mississippi-Alabama Line to the Tennessee Line to officially open the new 4-lane U. S. 78 (I-22). Many of the players in the historical 1987 4-Lane Highway Program were my friends and close acquaintances. I recall Zack Stewart confiding that the 18.4 cents per gallon the Mississippi House of Representatives were able to pass by the barest of margins, (two-thirds of one vote, over the veto of Gov. Bill Allain) would not suffice to maintain the arteries. I was a member of the old Highway 25 Association that pre-dated Bill Waller (I) and HOPE (Highways Our Pressing Emergency). Politics on roads hung like lights from a Christmas Tree but thanks to Transportation Chairman (at the time) John David Pennebaker of New Albany, his Vice Chair, Billy McCoy of Rienzi, Commissioner Stewart of New Albany and Sen. Bill Minor (later Commissioner) of Holly Springs, Northeast Mississippi got a good portion of the work. I can remember when Jackson-based leaders fought roads in our section because they contended it would take customers to Memphis or Birmingham to shop. Several Mississippi entrepreneurs made fortunes building the 10-mile or so links when contracts were let after ‘87. Now nearly all of them have sold out, closed shop or gone bankrupt. No new funding has been appropriated save for the ‘gaming roads’ addition of the mid-1990s. Only the tax from fuel are special funded for highways. No General Fund dollars are included. Gov. Ray Mabus raided MDOT’s reserves in the late 80s in exchange for the new headquarters building across the corner from the Capitol in Jackson. Haley Barbour engineered pilfering about $200 million in existing moneys as well as future revenue to balance his ‘starve the beast’ budget in 2004. Almost every governor in my life time has wanted to get his hands around the highway department because of the huge projects it finances and the large number of its employees. So far their efforts have failed even when two sitting Commissioners went to prison. How a vested interest group can oppose the user tax that finances our roads and their maintenance is beyond me. It seems a simple formula that having safe, good roads enhance transportation and lure more traffic and economic development. I was in the Legislature to vote for our state’s two largest job providing industries, Nissan at Canton and Toyota at Blue Springs. Neither would have chosen our state if we had not provided access to 4-lane roads. I know highways and transportation related projects can be political footballs. I threw a few forward passes myself. But to have an elected defense that shuts down such efforts is an historical dis-service. I’m glad my name can’t be used as one who opposed public education, failed to back modern transportation or hampered access to mental and physical healthcare. When I was in my last years of public service, MDOT calculated that for every billion dollars spent on highway construction, 14,000 jobs would be created. That’s more than Nissan and Toyota combined and we gave them more than a billion dollars in combined benefits. Nissan and Toyota have been good investments.

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