New Northern District highway commissioner promotes raising fuel tax

March 3, 2020 10:35:36 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


When a person moves into a new position, the first couple of months on the job are sometimes called a "baptism in fire."


But for Mississippi Northern District Highway Commissioner John Caldwell, the baptism has been with water -- lots and lots of water.


In February alone, the rainfall total was estimated at 9.54 inches, almost twice the average rainfall for the month, and among the wettest Februarys on record.



For Caldwell, elected to the position in November to replace two-term commissioner Mike Target who did not run for a third term, "getting his feet wet" has taken on a literal meaning.


"It's been bad," Caldwell said. "We've got eight state highways that are closed right now not because of the flooding but because of washouts from the heavy rains."


Two of those eight are located in Caldwell's district -- Highway 9 in Choctaw County, which Caldwell said will take six months to re-open, and another in Carroll County, which will remain closed for approximately three months.


Although he didn't provide an estimate for the repairs -- which includes filling potholes from one end of the state to the other -- Caldwell said the costs will be substantial.


"This was unexpected, but we do have multiple funding sources," he said. "There is some federal dollars in emergency funding, but some of it will also have to come out of our regular maintenance budget. Depending on the cost, we have also have to shift some money from a construction project."


Caldwell said the rain is a reminder that even with a $1.1 billion budget, the need for more funding still exceeds available revenue.


He said the Legislature is currently considering three options for raising the state's fuel tax. At 18.4 cents per gallon, Mississippi's fuel tax is among the lowest in the nation.


One option, he said, is to keep the fuel tax as it is, which really isn't an option at all, he said.


"The revenues are going to stay flat," he said. "So keeping it the same isn't really going to address the needs we have."


There are two other options, which Caldwell said the Legislature will likely phase in by a cent or two over a period of time.


One option calls for phasing in a fuel tax increase of 6 to 11 cents, which Caldwell believes is the most likely to be passed.


Another option is to raise the fuel tax by 14 to 21 cents per gallon.


"There's some real debate about just how much the fuel tax should be," Caldwell said. "But I think most people are in favor of some sort of increase."


Caldwell said a more realistic plan for funding will allow the state to not only restore Mississippi's current roads and bridges to good condition but also take on new projects.


"Everybody wants to make sure their project is on the list," Caldwell said. "People understand we have to prioritize, but they want to make sure their project doesn't fall off the list. Without funding, that's a possibility. I want to make sure everybody's on the list."


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]