a conversation with Arnemann on Fix Mississippi’s Roads

A new campaign was recently launched to bring roads and bridges to the forefront of this year’s statewide elections. Michael Arnemann, co-director of the Fix Mississippi’s Roads campaign, is helping lead the charge. Arnemann is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and serves as executive director of the Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association. He and his wife Natalie, have two children and live on the Northside. Arnemann recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the campaign and its efforts to raise awareness about the state’s infrastructure. The campaign launched July 1.

What is Fix Mississippi’s Roads?

“It’s a coalition of like-minded entities and individuals throughout Mississippi that have an interest in improving the road and bridge networks in the state. Right now, the coalition includes the Mississippi Asphalt Pavement Association and the Mississippi Road Builders Association, that’s who’s driving it. And we’re adding new coalition members regularly. Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association, is our co-director.”

How did the coalition get started?

“Several of us got together late last year and the early part of this year, and said, ‘this is an election year – an opportunity to once again promote road and bridge needs in our state.’ With a potential change in the makeup of the legislature and in executive leadership, we believe we have the opportunity to get ahead of the curve and put our message forward in regard to improving our road and bridge infrastructure.”

How are you getting the word out?

It’s a very digital-heavy campaign. We’re trying to actively solicit and engage the public via social media and other digital means to get people involved. We’re asking them to submit pictures of poor roads, potholes, road cracks, closed or deteriorating bridges – things that affect an everyday person in their everyday life.

In the past few years, the Mississippi Economic Council has come out with a plan to fund roadwork. Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall has also been vocal about the needs for more road funding. What will your campaign do that they didn’t?

“I want to compliment MEC and Commissioner hall for helping bring this issue to the forefront. What this effort, Fix Mississippi roads, is trying to do is build on what they already began.”

Tell me about the “MS Roads are ______” campaign. I know it’s still early, but what have some of the responses been so far?

“Mississippi roads are terrible. Mississippi roads are falling apart. Mississippi roads are sad. Mississippi roads are crumbling – we’ve gotten the basic criticism of what we in our industry see every day.”

Are you affected by any road or bridge issues?

“Because of a bridge closure, I have to take a detour to get to and from my home, and the roads around it are in deplorable condition.”

What will you do with this information? For example, are you going to send responses to the fill-in-the-blank campaign to the gubernatorial candidates?

“We have ideas on how we’re going to use this information, but it’s too early to get into specifics.”

In a press release sent out last week, the campaign mentions that it supports the creation of a long-range transportation improvement plan. What kind of plan would you like to see?

“We would like to see one with a long-term, sustainable funding source. We’ve seen efforts in the past, and we’re appreciative of what happened (during the 2018 special session), but we still do not have enough to adequately plan and build the infrastructure network we need to keep up with our surrounding states.”  

What are other states doing?

“Alabama recently increased its fuel tax 10 cents … that will be phased in over several years for minimal impact to the consumer. Tennessee has raised its fuel tax. Arkansas has raised its fuel tax. All of our comparable states in the Southeast are taking bold measures to increase their road spending, and the fairest, most equitable way to raise those funds is through a fuel tax.”

How much would a gas tax raise for the state?

“Every one-cent tax increase per gallon sold would generate $22 million a year in new revenues.”

What does the state’s current fuel tax generate?

“Between $280 million and $290 million a year. There are other revenue sources, too, such as tag fees and federal funds.”

How much is needed just to maintain the transportation infrastructure in our state?

“I hate to steal a quote from Commissioner Hall, but we’re not maintaining it with what we have. We’re managing its demise. In order to maintain it at adequate levels, studies have indicated that we need $300 million to $400 million a year on top of what the existing funding sources already generate.”

Is a fuel tax the only option for funding road work?

“The state of Mississippi has explored just about every other option than a gas tax increase. None of them provide an adequate, long-term sustainable funding source like a gas tax does.”

Have you spoken to lawmakers and legislative candidates about the state’s road and bridge needs? If so, what are their thoughts, especially when it comes to raising the gas tax?

“We have. Mike Pepper and I both have been in lengthy discussions with legislative leaders, particularly in the House of Representatives, who have demonstrated their willingness to come to the table on these issues. The House leadership has been very receptive to doing something. We don’t know what that something looks like yet, but they willingly acknowledge the need for additional road and bridge funding.”

What about the candidates for governor? Have you spoken with them?

“No, we have not spoken to the candidates about this. We do know that some of them are making road and bridge infrastructure a part of their campaign platforms. But that’s the extent of our knowledge on that.”

While some candidates seem to support a gas tax, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has been opposed to the idea of raising any taxes. What happens if he is elected governor? Where does Fix MS Roads go from there?

“We can’t predict the future. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, if it’s not closed or broken.”

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