OUR OPINION: Federal highway funds take a significant step

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted Thursday to keep federal funding for highways through Fiscal Year 2020 at 2014 levels, plus inflation, in effect a six-year extension of the current bill.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., was among the bipartisan committee group supporting the reauthorization. The bill, in widely published reports, calls for $242.4 billion of federal funding for highway projects over six years and would authorize $1 billion a year for the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act credit enhancement program.

Other committees’ actions will be required during the process toward final passage, which could happen, in a favorable scenario, in late summer before the current funding law expires.

Federal highway spending is essential in Mississippi because it is a major source of funds for highway construction. Under the existing law Mississippi will get $466 million in 2014; under the law proposed our state would receive $526 million by 2020 for surface transportation.

The bill also significantly contains an amendment authorizing $110 million per year for the Appalachian Regional Commission program funds.

Thursday’s committee approval represents progress, but it is far from what the nation needs in total for highways. Finance Committee chairman Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said last week that the Highway Trust Fund must receive an infusion of $10 billion to carry it through calendar year 2014 and $8 billion more in FY 2015 due to declining gasoline tax revenues. Wyden said keeping the fund solvent for six years of a new authorization without an additional revenue source would require $100 billion.

Mississippi is not alone in needing additional federal highway funds just to keep up, and the new bill would increase each state’s amount.

Political hurdles and partisan differences remain, to be sure, but basic agreement about need seems firmly established. A willingness to seek creative compromise can resolve differences and help ensure adequate federal highway funding in a new program authorization, as senators in both parties understand.