MDOT isn’t the problem

A performance audit of the Mississippi Department of Transportation released this week revealed few major potential cost savings.

Its biggest finding was that MDOT could save $13 million in future costs by not replacing under-utilized vehicles. That's only roughly 1 percent of the agency's $1.1 billion budget.

The audit had a few other recommendations but was mostly complimentary of MDOT's management. It found projects are bid fairly and transparently and that best practices are used to ensure consultant contracts are awarded to the most qualified firm at a fair price.

Although the audit findings are mostly good news for the state's taxpayers, some members of the Legislature may be disappointed. State leaders have in recent years tried to pass the buck for their refusal to provide enough money to maintain the state's highways and bridges onto MDOT, saying that if the agency operated more efficiently then it wouldn't need so much funding.

In that vein, the Legislature commissioned the state auditor's office to do the performance audit in 2018 when it approved $80 million annually for roads and bridges through a lottery. The auditor's office hired a firm from Philadelphia, Pa., with national expertise to lead the audit.

Rather than showing MDOT's inefficiencies, if anything the 125-page study makes another case for why a gas tax increase is merited. That's because the lack of spending on infrastructure has narrowed the field of companies interested in bidding on highway paving projects.

"The data show a pronounced trend over time towards more counties receiving just one or two bids per contract — most likely an unintended consequence of MDOT’s programmatic shift away from any new construction/expansion to almost exclusively system preservation," the audit said. "The asphalt industry appears to have consolidated to align with MDOT’s shrinking program."

It said that until  MDOT  significantly  expands  its  capital program  “asphalt  plant  locations  and  capacity  will  continue  to  act  as  a  key  market  constraint, responsible for driving higher bid pricing.”

MDOT has tried to offset that by re-bidding projects that come in too high. Auditors praised the agency for that, saying it has saved $4.5 million from 2016 to 2018 by re-bidding.

However, the only real solution to getting more bidders interested in road projects in Mississippi is to put more money on the table. A 2015 Mississippi Economic Council study, also commissioned by the Legislature, found that an additional $375 million per year was needed just to keep up existing roads and bridges. That figure has surely increased since then due to inflation and highways crumbling further.

The $80 million from the lottery is nowhere near enough to do the job. An increase in the gas tax is the obvious and fairest way to do the job. MDOT can pinch pennies all it wants, but until the gas tax is raised the state's highways and bridges will only get worse.