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Commissioner Simmons talks...

Commissioner Simmons talks transportation needs, highlights funding successes

By: Jeremy Pittari - January 23, 2024

Central Transportation Commissioner Willie Simmons talks about the need for more funding to keep Mississippi's roads and bridges maintained during Monday's Stennis Capitol Press Forum held at Hal and Mal's in Jackson. Photo by Jeremy Pittari/Magnolia Tribune

The Central District Transportation Commissioner is pleased Mississippi “stopped kicking the can down the road” on funding but says even more is needed.

Central District Transportation Commissioner Willie Simmons provided an overview of how funding to repair and build roads and bridges has increased over the past five years at the Stennis Capitol Press Forum on Monday. Simmons said he hopes the trend continues.

Simmons, a Democrat now in his second term, was recently elected by the three-man, Republican majority Transportation Commission as chairman.

Over the past few legislative sessions, Simmons said the Legislature has done four significant things to help fund infrastructure in the state:

  • Created a state lottery that would provide $80 million worth of funding for road and bridge work.
  • Passed the emergency road and bridge program to put $250 million into a special fund for the same purpose.
  • Established a diversion tax to create a fund where 20 percent of the state’s use tax would be utilized for road and bridge maintenance.
  • Put $35 million into a capacity project to ensure roads that need it could be widened with another $450 million provided last year.

In 2018, when he was still serving on the State Senate, Simmons said the Legislature decided to stop kicking the can down the road and provide more funding to properly maintain the state’s highway and interstate system. Prior to that special session, the former lawmaker said the federal government had been putting pressure on states to repair and maintain bridges or see federal funding cease.

Prior to that session in 2018, the state transportation system had been in maintenance mode for a decade. Simmons noted that when looking back on his work to pass the state’s lottery, which he believes was successful, he wishes lawmakers at the time had set the limit at $120 million. 

“So, 2018 is the year we stopped kicking the can down the road,” Simmons said.

But even with the increased funding and focus, Commissioner Simmons believes more needs to be done for the state’s highways and byways. 

“When you look at what our needs are, our needs are much greater than $450 million,” Simmons said.

He outlined several projects that will require more than that amount, including $110 million in Madison County to meet the growth the area has seen, $200 million needed in the northern part of the state along Interstate 55 in Desoto County, and another $150-$200 million along Highway 15, also in the northern part of the state. Simmons said that does not even include the work needed on Interstate 20 in Warren County. 

“It’s the worst interchange system in the country, and definitely the state of Mississippi. When you look at the safety aspect of getting on and getting off that particular interstate, that project to clean up those interchanges will be near a billion dollars,” Simmons estimated. 

When combined with work needed in Rankin County, and also along Interstate 10 along the Gulf Coast, Commissioner Simmons estimates the Mississippi Department of Transportation would need nearly $8 billion to address it all. 

Last week’s special session where the Legislature passed a series of bills providing state incentives to an EV battery production facility in Marshall County also highlighted the growing need to conduct capacity work along those corridors as well.

Simmons reminded those in attendance Monday to thank their legislators for supporting the state’s infrastructure needs, but also asked his constituents to push for more. 

“We stopped kicking the can down the road. We now must put some fuel and oil in those cans and barrels so we can build those roads and maintain them going forward,” Simmons said. 

Litter and some missing lighting are also concerns Commissioner Simmons agrees need to be addressed. He is aware of the litter problem in the state and said there is a program through MDOT that provides $50,000 to a Sheriff’s office or police department to pay someone to monitor state inmates while they pick up trash along the state’s roadways. The program is necessary because the only time MDOT picks up trash is before they mow a section of highway or interstate. Simmons said this is only done four or five times per year and only during the growing season. The program is offered statewide, but not every area is participating. 

In terms of missing lighting, especially in the Jackson area, Commissioner Simmons said the problem is due to people stealing copper from the light poles. He is seeking a study that he hopes will lead to lights being restored in areas such as along Interstate 20, Woodrow Wilson Avenue and more where the lack of lighting creates a safety issue. 

About the Author(s)
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Jeremy Pittari

Jeremy Pittari is a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast. Born and raised in Slidell, La., he moved to South Mississippi in the early 90s. Jeremy earned an associate in arts from Pearl River Community College and went on to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor's of arts in journalism. A week after Hurricane Katrina, he started an internship as a reporter with the community newspaper in Pearl River County. After graduation, he accepted a full-time position at that news outlet where he covered the recovery process post Katrina in Pearl River and Hancock Counties. For nearly 17 years he wrote about local government, education, law enforcement, crime, business and a variety of other topics.