MDOT Must Be Reformed and Re-Organized
Filed 1/22/06 Updated 1/25/06
The Mississippi legislature must consider reforming and reorganizing the Mississippi Department of Transportation this session. Or the governor must call a special session shortly after the regular session to do so.
It has become abundantly clear since Hurricane Katrina that MDOT is not working with Coast leaders and industry in the best interest of the recovery. It has proposed a bridge to replace the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge that has brought numerous questions about the design and would forever restrict the Coast's economic development and its future. In a real sense the debate and delays represent an agency that is out of touch with the Coast's needs and is actually an impediment to the Coast's recovery, and by the strength of the Coast's economy, a direct threat to the future of the entire state.
MDOT's southern district commissioner Wayne Brown, and to a significant degree, the local major media, which have been his mouthpieces, have consistently misled public officials regarding MDOT's objectives over roads and projects on the Coast, as GCN has reported in a series of stories and special features, including a lengthy Special Report written by retired FBI agent Royce Hignight entitled MDOT: A History of Deception.
But in light of the recent story, broken first by GCN, that the Coast Guard will be reviewing MDOT's plans for the the new bridge, it seems abundantly clear that MDOT has proven itself both inept and dangerously mismanaged at a time when real help is needed for the Coast to recover. In recent weeks both major industry and major agencies charged with economic development have questioned MDOT's bridge design that fails to include a drawspan. There is also criticism from local public officials and GCN that the bridge would fail to improve the Coast's traffic situation as more bridges are needed not larger bridges.
Even transportation experts with Governor Haley Barbour's commission for rebuilding the Coast called for reforming MDOT saying not just that MDOT's bridge plan was a mistake, but much of what MDOT has done and was considering to do, would be a failure for the Coast's economy. Much of this was not reported by the major media, such as the Sun Herald and WLOX, but can be found here on GCN.
MDOT's all-or-nothing position in refusing to offer alternative bridge designs is tantamount to blackmailing the citizens of the Coast to accepting a costly bridge that would restrict the future development of the Coast. It's decision not to pursue building additional bridges to improve Biloxi's traffic flow shows that the agency is not serious about the post-Katrina recovery of the city.
Brown is quoted in a January 24, WLOX televsion news report as saying, "The Biloxi Ocean Springs Bridge will simply sit in the back bay until the Mississippi Development Authority or the governor comes up with the $78 million necessary to add the drawbridge requested by Harrison County shipbuilders."
But perhaps the Sun Herald is beginning to see the problem.
In in editorial January 23, the newspaper's editors have finally turned from praising MDOT and Wayne Brown, to something different. The newspaper acknowledges what critics of MDOT's bridge, such as Ocean Spring's Mayor Connie Moran have been saying for several months.
"While one body of public officials in South Mississippi after another has been rushed into signing off on MDOT's ill-advised bridge design, more and more South Mississippians - including leaders of the business community - are beginning to see MDOT as more of a threat to, than a partner in, recovery," reads a portion of the editorial.
Later in their editorial the editors of the Sun Herald say:
"We do not know why Wayne Brown has not embraced the remarkable vision of South Mississippi that is coming into focus. But that's no reason for the other two elected transportation commissioners, Dick Hall and Bill Minor, not to do so."
Surely the editors and staff of the newspaper could ask Brown "why," and should have by now, but at least they now know the question.
GCN has asked Brown about the charrette experts recommendations. Brown said that the charrette experts were more into designing transportation improvements for the interior of the cities, and not for major transportation issues. For most part, he ignored them but added that there were MDOT staffers that attended some of the meetings.
"Mostly what the charrettes went through was over city streets. They wanted to calm down highway 90 traffic to slow it down," Brown said in an interview in December with GCN.
By implication, Brown's wants to speed U.S. 90 traffic up. A big ten-lane bridge (six main lanes with four service lanes) that MDOT has proposed would fit nicely with a high-speed six lane U.S. 90 road, which MDOT wants for the Beach highway, much like the MDOT designed disaster at U.S. 49 in north Gulfport.
Imagine, a six to seven lane beach highway and think what it would be for a visitor at a hotel on the north side and trying to cross that highway with wife and kids in tow.
Brown also said the transportation experts want to develop another east-west route and moving the CSX railroad. Which to Brown is extremely unlikely.
Brown said that building more bridges would be too costly and take years to get environmental approvals. But Brown is known for downplaying issues with nebulous facts for projects that he doesn't want to do.
The Sun Herald, in their editorial, calls for MDOT's whole three-commissioner organization to focus on the Coast's recovery and not just Wayne Brown's southern district. The newspaper does not go so far as to call for a reform, but does introduce an alarming note, that perhaps MDOT as an agency, subdivides it work across the state with each of the three commissioners using their "share" of the money in the pot. Much like Mississippi supervisors once operated during the "beat" system. A system that was fraught with corruption that it resulted in a major federal investigation during the 1980's that ended with the arrests and convictions of over 57 supervisors and forced the legislature to reform how counties operated.
If federal Katrina disaster money is sent through MDOT for road repairs, there are questions over whether the most damaged southern district would see all of the money, or whether some of it would be spent for road work outside the most needful Coast area.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation is run by an executive director who serves at the pleasure of the state’s three elected transportation commissioners. Which means MDOT is independent of the governor and is beholden to the Legislature for only a small part of its funding as most of its money comes from the federal government.
With nearly five months since Hurricane Katrina, MDOT has yet to replace street lights on the I-110 bridge in Biloxi, or the heavily traveled and dangerous U.S. 49 in North Gulfport. MDOT has also failed to meet promised deadlines on opening all of U.S. 90 to four lane traffic and replacing traffic signals in some areas. This is inexcusable and provides more reasons to question MDOT's commitment to help the Coast recover.
There is too much at stake for the mistakes and inept operations being displayed by MDOT. The whole organization needs reform. The Coast's future is at stake.
Brown's repeated statements that a drawspan would be too expensive for its current huge bridge design, and his reluctance to talk about another option is ludicrous, and is misleading the public. As too are his excuses as to why the bridge work has now been delayed.
Action to reform MDOT can begin with the legislature that is in session now. Efforts to do so were thwarted just five years ago in the state legislature and many of the improvements sought are in files that can be re-introduced.
In 2000, the Performance Evaluation Performance Review Committee issued a strongly worded report of MDOT, a report that should have brought about reform to the agency. That report showed that MDOT was failing on almost every measure and was so far behind on a legislature-mandated gaming roads program to support the gaming industry that the program wouldn't be completed until 2025. The PEER report is still relevant today.
According to highway safety statistics, Mississippi is 2nd in the nation for the number of highway fatalities per capita of citizens. It is 3rd in the nation for the number miles workers have to drive per capita. In recent weeks, there has been numerous deaths of young adults on the area's highways. While certainly some of this is due to poor driving decisions, it remains clear that MDOT, the agency charged with our states highways and bridges, is failing on almost all fronts and not doing enough. And cutting trees along the roads as their main safety effort, is not a solution.
Maybe reformers will have better luck this time.
UPDATE: As the situation over the MDOT's bridge escalates, the news is changing. Now even the Sun Herald knows what GCN has been reporting. In an editorial in their Tuesday, January 25th edition, the newspaper's editors said in part,
"After having hurried city and county governments on the Coast to endorse a wider and more expensive than necessary bridge across Biloxi Bay, MDOT officials now admit that their failure to consult industries that transport their products through the bay has left them uncertain about what sort of bridge will eventually reconnect Harrison and Jackson counties.
This admission of incompetence ought to cause more than a few heads to roll at MDOT."
The newspaper has not yet called for reforming MDOT.
Traffic Fatalities in