The congressional shapers of health care reform – the pros and the cons – receive most of the attention in the national debate about policy that matters, but another issue, surface transportation, is gaining momentum heading into the post-Labor Day return to work.
A new transportation spending authorization hasn’t even been written, but its importance in every district and state hasn’t escaped the focus of either the lobbyists or the legislators who understand that jobs, federal investment and political capital are at stake.
The highway bill, as the massive pieces of legislation usually are called, are known traditionally by interesting acronyms:
In 2005, President Bush signed into law the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). Its $244.1 billion was at that point the largest surface transportation investment in our nation’s history. It was preceded by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, pronounced “icetea”) and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).
SAFETEA-LU needs a successor, but writing and passing one will require a tug-of-war and power-balancing act almost without parallel because of changing perceptions and priorities about what should be built, where and with what other considerations, like climate integrity.
Great difficulties are anticipated, and it goes without saying that every Mississippi member of the House and Senate will seek to be involved at an optimum level.
Our state relies heavily historically on federal funds to build highways (see U.S. 78-I-22, planning for a new Mississippi Highway 9, much of the money for new Mississippi Highway 6, all of them Northeast Mississippi routes).
However, in a recent New York Times report a seasoned and experienced former senator, Washington’s Slade Gordon, who is now a bi-partisan transportation advocate, said, “To believe that the entire Congress is going to finish this reauthorization bill by Sept. 30, when there isn’t even a bill, is truly a triumph of hope over experience. Can things be done in the interim? My answer to that question is yes.”
A transportation spending bill has been on the schedule since Congress approved the current program/policy. Lawmakers now know its funding level was far too low. Too many projects nationwide have not been funded or built. It expires at the end of September, and the next phase almost certainly will be larger ($400 billion and up, by some estimates), and most in the Capitol expect a struggle over what else it contains and how many new issues are attached to what has been historically a construction-funding law.
Funding under the highway acts has been guaranteed by the income placed in the federal Highway Trust Fund. Last week, the House voted to provide $5 billion in emergency funding for the trust to keep construction and reimbursements moving in the face of revenue shortfalls. The Senate will follow suit, but the special cash diversion from the general fund is only an interim.
A Senate bill introduced in late July would divert nearly $27 billion into the trust.
Last year, Congress passed an emergency spending bill to inject the trust fund with $8 billion after a similar cash crunch.
Deference was paid to the needs of rural states in discussions of the health reform bill in the House. We hope factors of demography and geography play appropriately into the new transportation policy.
Many Mississippians follow with great interest all highway funding legislation, and we hope they raise their voices in a strong request for full bipartisanship on the transportation issues rising to the top of the agenda.
Our economy must have the investment – for jobs, new business, and a fair chance for greater prosperity.
NEMS Daily Journal