Sept. 23–TUPELO — Transportation development is a growing need for an expanding state economy to connect Mississippi businesses with markets.
Highways, trains and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway connect industries, particularly in rural parts of the state, to a world of consumers.
North District Mississippi Highway Commissioner Mike Tagert spoke at a panel regarding “rubber tire” transportation and economic development at the ARC Summit last week, emphasizing the importance of maintaining Mississippi’s weathered bridges and thoroughfares to grow the state economy.
Tagert said the state has 30,000 lane miles of highway, 18 waterway ports, five railroads and 2,500 miles of rail track. in addition, the state is surrounded by water, such as the Gulf of Mexico to the south, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to the east, and the Mississippi River to the west.
As far as roads and bridges go, there is a greater need for bridge maintenance, road paving and capacity of the roads as the Mississippi workforce continues to grow. Aging infrastructure means more bridges have become obsolete. Although from 2012 to 2017, there has been a decrease in deficient bridges, there is still a large number of functionally obselete bridges in Mississippi.
Tagert said most state highways and bridges were built in the 1930s and 1940s and many are in need of maintenance. The Department of Revenue reported 2.76 million vehicle registrations last year. Tagert said 41 million vehicle miles were travelled in 2017, and the number of vehicle registrations last year hit 2.76 million.
“If you think about the economic drivers our country has experienced in that 31 years, fuel efficiency has dramatically increased,” he said. “We may be purchasing more fuel, but it’s completely negated by fuel efficiency which is a positive thing, but it does not change the fact that we’ve got to find a way to maintain that system we’ve built over the last 30 years.”
Tagert said funding for bridges and highways has remained flat since 1987. He said the average age of bridges in Mississippi is 41 years old, but the median age is upwards of 65 years old. Four bridges in Mississippi are currently closed completely.
“Everybody wants to build new roads and open new access lanes to promote economic development for our different communities, but the responsible approach is really to make sure that we maintain all of the roads we already have in place,” Tagert said.
Tagert said some bridges are in such disrepair that 18-wheelers and trucks packed with goods cannot traverse them. This can slow growth for industries in certain areas, particularly rural communities.
“When you’re a small community, whether you’re a small city, or a county or rural county, you’re out trying to compete with a lot of other communities that are just like you, so you’ve got to have access,” Tagert said.
Chad Miller of the University of Southern Mississippi, spoke about defense infrastructure as it relates to economic opportunities, particularly transportation infrastructure.
Miller spoke about the economic impact of connecting defense contractors in the Appalachia region to global markets, particularly overseas opportunities. He said defense exports is a growing market internationally.
He said the Department of Defense is concerned about the defense supply chain, it’s resilience and innovation, so it is promoting initiatives to improve exports and strengthen that defense supply chain.
Miller said 5 percent of Mississippi GDP is defense-related, with 37,000 personnel, 3,000 direct and indirect companies, two defense labs and universities that offer defense research as well.
He said there are approximately 200 defense tech companies in the state. In addition to Huntington-Ingalls shipbuilding, defense opportunities are growing in aerospace, shipbuilding and autonomous underwater vehicles for the Navy.
Just in Mississippi, Miller said there was a $260 million economic impact coming out of Columbus Air Force Base last year. He said transportation jobs, as well as a veteran, often skilled workforce are two ways military bases create economic impact in states.
Justin Murphree, operations manager with the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, cited a 2015 economic impact report for the waterway showing that Mississippi saw its second-highest employment rate, annual economic output and tax revenues. However, those numbers weren’t even half of the economic impact Alabama derived from use of the waterway.
Murphee said the waterway links 4,500 miles of navigable waterways to the Gulf of Mexico saving 500 miles and a week’s worth of time for shipping industries, serving 23 states. The Tennessee-Tombigbee covers 34 million aces of commercial forest.
Murphee said the waterway is a little over 30 years old and in pretty good shape, meaning aging infrastructure is not a concern with water transport in the region.
Tonnage took a dip in 2018, but the five-year average is 6 million tons from data from shippers coming through the locks.
Raw materials like coal, wood, timber, rock and gravel are most often shipped on the waterway now, but Murphee said he believes there will be a push for containers of finished products to be shipped on the waterway in the future.
The waterway gets funding from 1,400 commercial lockages per year, but tourism is a growing portion, at 1.3 million visitors, seven campgrounds, three visitors centers and 41 boat ramps along the 234 mile-long waterway. The waterway saves $700 million savings anually in transportation costs.
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