THE MDOT SHUFFLE
By Royce Hignight - Special to GulfCoastNews.com - Filed 4/8/04 updated
Editor's Note: Traffic improvements have been surveyed to be among the most important issues to residents and businesses on the Coast. Improvements are badly needed for our area to grow and prosper. And while you hear that our government's leaders, and state transportation officials are doing something about it, it is largely smoke and mirrors when you start looking into the facts, as you will see from the following article....
In the April 4, 2004, issue of the SUN HERALD, the editorial was, “Why does Gulfport light up MDOT while Biloxi leaves the agency cold?” The editorial begins, “The need to build a new road between Beach Boulevard and Interstate 10 in Gulfport has fired up the imaginations of officials at the Mississippi Department of Transportation. But the need to build a similar roadway between the beach and the interstate in Biloxi does not spark any interest at MDOT. Why is that?”
The article goes on to say, “This ought not be an either/or situation…either a new roadway in Gulfport or a new one in Biloxi. Both cities, for both safety and economic reasons, need improvements in the flow of traffic within their boundaries. MDOT officials do not deny that. But it is only in Gulfport that they are acting with any sense of urgency. Why is that?” This article will shed some light on these timely and important questions posed by the SUN HERALD. The Gulfport road may not be nearly as close to reality as the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) and others have been suggesting.
What the SUN HERALD is referring to are the two north/south highway connectors that are to run between Highway 90 and Interstate 10 in Biloxi and Gulfport. The 1997 session of Mississippi Legislature authorized MDOT to build these roads. The Biloxi connector was not only authorized, it was specifically funded by the extension of the Gaming Road Fund (GRF) in the amount of $50 million. The GRF is a tax paid by casinos for the purposes of building and improving roads in counties impacted by casinos. A portion of the tax is also earmarked for state-wide road maintenance.
The Biloxi connector was the higher priority of the two. The budgeted figure of $50 million was for a four lane, ground level highway. In late 1998, MDOT began a series of public meetings to explain MDOT’s plans and to receive public input on the plans and potential routes. MDOT claimed that it was mandated to build an elevated roadway. The citizens of Biloxi vigorously opposed an elevated roadway because of the negative impact it would have on the community. The costs escalated to approximately $260 million because of MDOT’s plans for an elevated expressway.
MDOT almost never performed within the time limits that were set on such things as meetings, studies, route selection, etc. In addition, MDOT representatives often furnished conflicting information. Some citizens, including this writer and Gerald Blessey, attorney and former Mayor of Biloxi, felt MDOT was stalling. Mr. Blessey and I did some research on the funding under the GRF. It was determined that there were over a billion dollars worth of projects and that only $325 million would be raised under the tax. Furthermore, almost all of the $325 million had already been expended or committed. This left no funds available to do either the Biloxi or Gulfport road.
In February 2000, Blessey and I wrote an article and exposed the fact there were no funds for these roads and that MDOT was basically conning the citizens of Biloxi and Gulfport into believing that significant progress was being made building the roads. During mid 2000, it was revealed that MDOT had also misled the entire Legislature by being way over budget and way behind schedule on highway construction projects all over the state.
The Legislature was so disgusted with MDOT that hearings were held by both the appropriate House and Senate committees. They were very critical of MDOT. In the January 2001 legislative session, the entire House voted overwhelmingly to reform MDOT. However, the reform was killed in the Senate Transportation Committee when it was held up by Senator Bob Dearing, the Chairman. The PEER Committee also issued a report very critical of MDOT.
Unfortunately, the Biloxi Mayor, A. J. Holloway, and almost the entire city counsel had to find out the hard way about MDOT’s lack of credibility when they accepted MDOT’s prohibitively expensive proposal on September 11, 2001, with no funds to pay for it. Apparently the Biloxi leadership bought MDOT’s explanation that the funding, probably federal, would come later in spite of MDOT’s lack of credibility.
This writer appeared before the city counsel before the vote and recounted all of the above information concerning MDOT’s lack of credibility and also told them that a vote for the MDOT proposal was the same as voting not to have a road. On November 15, 2003, MDOT’s submitted a request for federal funding of highways for the following six years. There was no request for funds for the Biloxi road.
MDOT ABANDONS BILOXI
Apparently by November 18, 2003, the Biloxi Mayor and Council finally came to realize they had been abandoned by MDOT and had wasted several years time in accepting MDOT’s promises. The city council designated the construction of a new Popps Ferry Bridge as the city’s top priority and began efforts to find funding on their own.( See full details-The New Bridge at gulfcoastnews.com).
The handwriting was on the wall for MDOT abandoning the Biloxi road long before November 15, 2003. The December 13, 2000, issue of the SUN HERALD had an article which stated, “A north-south connector highway for Gulfport is expected to be built before one for Biloxi, Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown confirmed Tuesday.”
However, there was still one obstacle in the way. NO FUNDING. However, apparently MDOT, in conjunction with a handful of local self appointed people, campaigned recently for a Gulfport road to be paid by tolls if they could get the legislature to sign-off on some new laws.
Their efforts were successful and on April 8th, the Mississippi House voted to approve the bills. It had earlier passed in the Senate.
They developed a two-part legislative plan. First was to pass legislation to legalize a toll- road. This legislation is Senate Bill 2063, which drew all the media attention.
The second part was to pass legislation to enable MDOT to use a method of construction called “Design Build” to be used on the Gulfport road and throughout the state. This is Senate Bill 2734. Both of these bills are public policy disasters in the making.
NEW LAWS COULD UNDERMINE OVERSIGHT
“Design Build” is a construction method in which one company does both the designing and construction of the project. Those pushing this concept are using their best salesmanship to sell it to the public and the legislature. But, what this concept does is to circumvent the accountability and oversight, as provided for under current state statutes, regarding the expenditure of public resources on construction projects.
The Mississippi Code of 1972, As Amended, Section 73-13-45, states, “Neither the state, nor any of its political subdivisions, such as a county, city or town, shall award construction contracts of any public work involving the practice of engineering or architecture unless the plans, specifications and estimates have been prepared and such work supervised by a registered professional engineer or architect…”
Section 73-13-45, requires that the architect or engineer be employed by the state or political subdivision. The architect or engineer is the public’s watchdog over the contractor, and it is part of his/her duties to insure that the contractor meets his obligations. Under the Design Build concept, the watchdog is removed from guarding the chicken coop, and the fox is put in the watchdog’s place. Who will be the first to put the fox to guarding the chicken coop when the chicken coop is $300,000,000 worth of bond funds.
Another extremely disturbing feature, also designed to circumvent current state law that protects public resources, that has been slipped into the Design Build Bill, is that the Design Build contractor will be chosen from proposals rather than from the low bidder. This is the same procedure now allowed under state law to engage professionals such as attorneys, engineers, architects, and other professionals.
As everyone knows who knows anything about public policy, in reality; such proposals mean nothing more than a formality. Practically speaking a hundred lawyers can submit proposals and the winner is going to be who ever the officeholder wants. Once the officeholder has decided who he wants, the rest may as well forget it. And if you check political contribution reports, you will usually find large contributions from the winner. That is the way the game is played.
Accepting proposals rather than low bids on high dollar construction contracts will invariably lead to an unprecedented degree of favoritism and cronyism in a state that is already know as the most corrupt state in the union. Citizens of this state pay for this everyday in a deficiency of quality of life in activities such as education, economic development, job opportunity, etc. (See Mississippi’s Open Wound article on this website).
WHERE WILL THE MONEY COME FROM?
Financing the Gulfport connector as a toll road would also be a challenge. To build the road the state would have to issue revenue bonds in the amount of $300,000,000, which is the road's estimated cost and that doesn't include operational expenses. The bonds would mature in twenty years. These bonds would to be repaid from tolls collected from trucks going to and from the Port of Gulfport.
But according to the latest projected traffic information, it does not appear that the traffic would raise enough money to even make a dent in the debt service.
The monthly average of trucks going to the Port of Gulfport is less than 90,000 a year, according to the latest figures obtainable.
Take $300,000,000 at 4% annual interest equals $12,000,000 yearly interest. Divide $12,000,000 annual interest by 90,000 trips and that equals $133.33. The $133.33 is the toll that every truck going to and from the Port of Gulfport would have to pay just to pay the interest. No truck driver would pay $10.00 per trip, much less $133 per trip.
No investors would be foolish enough to buy such bonds for such a road project as they could envision problems in recovering their investment. Citizens of Gulfport should not be counting on this road for traffic congestion relief in the foreseeable future.
So what is really up with MDOT?
Could it be that this is just another MDOT shuffle? That is, has MDOT used the toll road concept to win local support of those who desperately want the Gulfport road, to help convince other lawmakers to give their support to the Design Build concept?
Why would MDOT want to lessen the oversight and accountability provided for by state statute regarding the expenditure of public funds as would happen under the Design Build concept?
An article in the SUN HERALD, January 17, 2004, issue titled: “Survey: Mississippi leads in corruption,” reflected that “More Mississippi public officials have been convicted on federal corruption charges per capita over the past decade than in any other state, according to the Washington-based newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter.” These two bills should help Mississippi attain that status once again.
About the Author
Royce Hignight is a long-time Coast resident and retired FBI Agent who, after retirement, has spent a considerable amount of time examining the area's transportation needs and participating in citizen groups interested in resolving Biloxi's transportation problems. He currently operates a private investigative and consulting service.
Contact the Author: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org