Hall: Building a System and an Economy | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Hall: Building a System and an Economy

Dick Hall has served as the Central District’s transportation commissioner for 16 years, and he’s hoping to make that an even 20 after November’s election.

Dick Hall has served as the Central District’s transportation commissioner for 16 years, and he’s hoping to make that an even 20 after November’s election. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Dick Hall was a Mississippi state senator in 1987 when Gov. William Allain vetoed the Four-Lane Highway Program bill, and it took a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate to override it. Hall said he got up and spoke for it, even though he represented a district it did not touch.

"I knew how important it was to the state's economy. And when the state of the Mississippi economy is good, Jackson is going to do good," Hall said.

Hall worked then in construction manufacturing, and owned a manufacturing representative business. He had started out in the House of Representatives in 1976 in the District 64 seat. He served as a representative until 1983, when he switched to represent District 25 in the Senate. In 1999, Gov. Kirk Fordice appointed Hall to fill an unexpired term as the Central District's public service commissioner. He has been re-elected four times, and is seeking his fifth re-election to the post.

A native of Vicksburg who grew up in Jackson, Hall graduated with a bachelor's degree in business from Mississippi State University. He served in the Army from 1960 to 1961, and was in the reserves for eight years after graduation because he had participated in the ROTC program. He worked in Birmingham, Ala., for a few years before returning to the Jackson metro area.

Hall, 77, lives in Brandon with his wife, Jennifer, and their "sassy" bulldog, Abby. They attend Lakeside Presbyterian Church.

Why are you running for commissioner again, and why should voters re-elect you?

Prosperity rides on good roads, and I like to tell folks that we're not just building a transportation system; we're building an economy. In today's world market, where we have to compete, you have absolutely got to have a modern and a mobile system of transportation to be competitive. Let me give you an example. If an industry is looking for a particular community to locate, they'll ask you about your school system, they'll ask you about taxes, particularly those they can get out of paying. But the first thing they are going to ask you is: "How do I get my raw materials in? And how do I get my finished product out?" If you can't answer that question, they're not going to stick around and ask you about your schools and taxes, they're going to go somewhere else.

How did our system get to its current state?

In 1987, we passed the state's Four-Lane Highway Program, and as a result of that, we spent about $3 billion of taxpayer money to build 1,200 miles of new four-lane highway. We were successful in that—our system we built was nationally ranked as the sixth best highway system in the United States and number one in the mid-South. But when we passed that legislation, we made two major mistakes. First, we set the fuel rate at a flat rate, at 18 cents a gallon, instead of a percentage. And the vehicle you drove back then got 12 to13 miles to the gallon, and the one you can drive now gets 25 to 30 miles to the gallon so our revenues have never increased—and the only reason they haven't gone sharply down is because there are more vehicles on the highway now than there was then. But the cost of highway construction has gone up 300 percent, so we're in a financial bind as to how to finance the system.

The other mistake we made was (there was) absolutely no provision for maintaining what we were getting ready to build. Now, a prudent businessperson doesn't make a major capital investment and not maintain it; that's stupid business and stupid government, but that's what we did. So that's where we're caught now, with flat revenues and increasing construction costs and ... basically no maintenance, so we're having to take most of the money we've got now to try to preserve what we have.

As a result of all that, to fix or replace the structurally deficient bridges on our state system right now would cost (more than) $500 million. To fix the highways and to bring them up to the standard they need to be at would cost (more than) $1 billion. We're that far behind with what we've got, and our problem now is how do you move on to the future? I want to come back again and see if we can't get over that hill where we can not only maintain what we have but move on to what we need to build because I saw it work. That '87 program worked—without it there'd be no Toyota, no Nissan, no Severstal, there wouldn't be hundreds of other businesses that have located and expanded in Mississippi if we hadn't build that kind of system. Now we've got to maintain it and build it again.

What are the top two or three things that you've done in your past 16 years as transportation commissioner to make our system better?

I think the stewardship of the resources we have, we've done a very good job with that. The Mississippi (Transportation) Commission and the department are now operating as it was intended—an elected commission responsible for planning and financing and so forth and a professional staff at the Mississippi Department of Transportation that runs the day-to-day business. There was a time when everyone was fighting, with 2-to-1 votes, and we had a staff without leadership, but now we've changed that. This last four-year term, we can count the number of 2-to-1 votes on one hand. The commission is working together, and we've got the staff in place we're comfortable with, and that's the number one thing I've had a part in accomplishing. We've done a lot of planning. We've done a good job taking what we have and prioritizing it to hold the system together.

And then we have built some things: We're going to break ground in the next couple weeks, adding lanes to Lakeland Drive (Highway 25), (and) we've just finished this $85 million project in Madison County called the Split Diamond Project, adding lanes to I-55 North. We're in the middle of adding lanes to I-55 South. We're five-laning Highway 471 in Rankin County. But then we have things that aren't done, like between Meridian and Philadelphia is Highway 19, and we're going to four-lane it in three sections. We've completed two sections; the third section we have the right-of-way bought, and we got everything ready to go but no money to build it. In Greenville, we're doing a bypass on Highway 82, and we've got $40 million invested in it but don't have the money to finish it. So those are just easy-to-see projects, a poster-child need for more resources.

What distinguishes from your opponent in this election race?

I think my experience in all of this (distinguishes me). Rep. Mary Coleman is a very nice lady, and until now, I considered her a friend of mine, but there's no substitute for the experience I have.

What's your plan to get the proposed funding you need?

The Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber of commerce, is in the process of completing a study, and they've been at this for quite a few months now. They are doing a very thorough study of what our situation (is), how much money we need to repair what we have, how much we need going forward and how the other states (are) reacting to this. We are not in this by ourselves. Every state is having the same problem.

Also, the Legislature a couple years ago did their own study where a PEER committee looked at this situation and came back and said yes, there is more money needed. They clearly said that. To complicate all of this, Congress hasn't done anything in the last 20 years—there's been no change in how the feds have provided resources. The national Highway Trust Fund has been bankrupt for at least six years. We're sitting here with a state system of funding highways that has been dormant for 28 years—since 1987—and a federal system that has been (the same) for 20 years. I say that to point out that clearly Mississippi is not unique. Everybody is in this. Some states are taking action, and we're not.

You would encourage the Legislature to take some sort of action in the upcoming session?

Yes, now I'm not saying raise the fuel tax or raise the sales tax; it's up to the Legislature how we do it, and I am not privy to anything, but I feel confident that that MEC report is going to say that it is time to do something—it's time to do 1987 again.

Do you think that the Legislature understands the significance of transportation?

I think now it's more of ... just like Congress, it's just a tough vote. But how tough does it have to get before you do something?

If you win your race again, what will be your focus? What project or order will the projects be finished in?

It depends because it takes years. If you want to build a brand new highway, it will probably take 10 years, but even to add lanes, it takes years because you've got to do environmental and legal work, buy right-of-way, move utilities and all of that before you go in and start trying to build the thing. They (projects mentioned above) are all at different stages, and some will kind of move along faster than others. So I don't go through that list and say, this is number one and this is number two because you don't know how fast that's going to move along that chain of activity. One we just completed, I did move up—it was a Gluckstadt interchange. We just cut the ribbon on that last week, and the reason we did that was because traffic in rush hour was backing up onto the interstate, so it was an acute safety issue. So when we run across something like that, that moves up the priority list rapidly, but when it moves up, something else moves down.

We are working on developing passenger rail lines from Mobile to New Orleans, through Biloxi and Pascagoula and Gulfport, across the coast and then from Meridian to Jackson to Vicksburg, and I'm optimistic. It's going to take some planning—there's a lot of things to be worked out, but I'm optimistic. We're working with other states, primarily Alabama and Louisiana, on this. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but that's something I plan to accomplish, working with others, in the next four years.

In terms of infrastructure, are the bridges the top priority in terms of maintenance?

Yes. I am really afraid that if we don't do something significant in that area, we're going to have a catastrophe. Some counties, like Rankin, are in good shape, where there has been new growth, but some of the older areas are where you've got some of those structures, like Highway 51. So they are scattered all over the state—and that's just the bridges on our system; there's even more out there on the county and city systems, now there are more of those than ours, but 65 to 75 percent of traffic is on the state's system.

How is a lack of funding affecting Mississippi's transportation system?

When I talk about transportation, we're building an economy—people don't realize the (advantages of) construction industry that was built in Mississippi in 1987. ... Construction folks don't get minimum wage, it's a well-paying job. That has been hurt tremendously today, and our contractors have been laying off people for a few years now.

There is not enough money to build the things that we've got planned and ready to build. If I had a billion dollars, I couldn't build what needs to be built just in the Jackson metro area. You never get through—when I first got this job, I thought well, at Highway 16 between Highway 25 from Carthage to Philadelphia, why don't we come in here and four-lane that highway so Carthage could be in the market for an industry? I quickly found out, you're not going to get enough money to do that. We are always behind. Everything we build is something that's needed building for years.

What accounts for that?

It's the nature of the beast—I think that's a part of this system. Wherever you are, you'll never have enough money to do what you want to do, but to make it worse, we haven't had the resources to do some things that we really need to do, and when you start falling behind half a billion dollars for bridges and a billion dollars for your highways, that's serious business. The Legislature sooner or later is going to do something. I just hope it's sooner rather than later.

Support our reporting -- Follow the MFP.