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Counties push for bridge, road funds

If a Mississippian hits a lottery jackpot, collects on a 10-team parlay bet or makes a purchase on Amazon, county supervisors want a piece of the action.

The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors on Monday passed a boilerplate resolution recommended by the Mississippi Association of Supervisors that calls on the Legislature to “take advantage of recent developments” to provide all 82 counties with additional funding for the maintenance of county-owned roads and bridges. The resolution doesn’t say specifically, but those “developments” are undoubtedly proposals to divvy up proceeds from the state’s Internet sales tax, to tax sports gambling and to earmark cash from a state lottery, which is expected to have support from lawmakers statewide if brought up in a special-called legislative session predicted for mid-August.

Importantly for supervisors, the resolution asks lawmakers to send funds directly to the county, skipping the Mississippi Department of Transportation or the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction.

“If that money goes through the highway department, there’s so many stipulations we won’t ever see it,” said District 4 Supervisor Eddie Brown.

The resolution reminds lawmakers that counties are responsible for the upkeep of 69 percent of the state’s road miles — 52,000 miles — and 9,865, or 59 percent, of bridges. More than 400 county bridges statewide are currently closed and 1,600 are posted for low vehicle weights.

Supervisors passed the resolution 4-0 — District 1 Supervisor and Board President Jerry Wilson was absent from the meeting with a doctor’s appointment. The resolution is a symbolic gesture, though MAS says it will distribute copies from all participating counties to lawmakers at the special session.

Mississippi’s closed-bridge crisis began last year when the Federal Highway Administration, apparently suspicious of the state’s bridge safety inspection process, conducted surprise inspections on a dozen randomly-selected bridges. When the majority of those spans flunked the test, FHA ordered State Aid to hire a group of out-of-state inspectors on a $30 million contract to inspect every county-owned bridge, resulting in hundreds of closures.

Most of the closures are on bridges with timber substructures, and Lincoln County — having the second-highest amount of timber bridges in the state — was particularity hard-hit. Supervisors diverted a $5 million bond intended for paving improvements to bridge work and have replaced, repaired or programmed fixes for more than 40 bridges in the past year.

The bridge crisis has reached all the way to the Legislature and the governor’s office. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeve’s billion-dollar BRIDGE Act flopped in a Senate conference committee, despite Republican dominance, and Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to call a special session in about two weeks and ask lawmakers to come up with longterm transportation funding.

The special session is expected to deal with the use tax, sporting tax and a possible lottery, all of the MAS’ “recent developments.” An increase to the state’s 18-cent-per-gallon fuel tax is not expected to be on the agenda, even though most county supervisors statewide — including Lincoln’s — say it’s the only fair and sure way to fund transportation improvements. Mississippi last raised its fuel tax during the Cold War, in 1989.