OUR OPINION: Federal highway funds sustain Mississippi work

The nation’s highway and mass transit programs can breathe easier, at least briefly, after the Senate on a bipartisan vote relented late Thursday and cleared a GOP-crafted $11 billion extension of the Highway Trust Fund’s revenue it had overwhelmingly rejected two days earlier.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., voted for the bill, and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., did not vote. Cochran had been in Mississippi on Thursday for a campaign speech at the Neshoba County Fair.

The final Senate vote was 81 yeas, 13 nays and six not voting.

The bill keeps the fund afloat through May 2015, but it is not the long-term extension with additional revenue sought by a bipartisan Senate group, transportation officeholders, and major elements in the nationwide highway construction industries.

Northern District Highway Commissioner Mike Tagert has said the trust fund provides half of all highway revenues for Mississippi – between $400 million and $500 million annually at current levels.

The Senate’s 81-13 vote sends the legislation to President Barack Obama for his signature. The House earlier passed the measure by a landslide margin. The deadline for funding continuity was Friday.

Many published reports had said 700,000 jobs were at risk without funding.

The passage turned out much as many transportation professionals and officeholders had predicted: a compromise measure very near the deadline. Tagert was among those who earlier said he foresaw that outcome.

The online publication Politico described the funding as “revenue from a controversial budget technique called pension smoothing as well as boosting customs fees; the money then gets funneled into the Highway Trust Fund, which can no longer maintain program funding at status-quo levels on an 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax. This is the 10th short-term extension of the program in the past half-decade.”

“The mere fact that lawmakers punted – instead of summoning the courage to craft a long-term, sustainably financed solution to the Highway Trust Fund – is perfectly emblematic of this Congress,” Association of Equipment Manufacturers President Dennis Slater said in a statement quoted in Politico. “While a laudable few lawmakers deserve credit for their efforts to tackle this problem, many other members of Congress deserve tough questions from their constituents during the coming August recess.”

The full Mississippi delegation understands the importance of adequate federal highway funding, and a long-term solution (six years) can’t happen too soon.