OUR OPINION: State highway building relies on federal funding

By NEMS Daily Journal

Federal highway funding will continue for three months under a continuing resolution passed by the House and Senate late last week, but the measure is far short of a hoped-for, longer-term renewal like the bill passed in March by the Senate.
Had the continuing resolution not passed, federal funding would be dead in the water today because spending authority expired at midnight.
The two-year bill that passed the Senate was bipartisan; its supporters included Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republicans. It fell short in the House.
Funding at the current level is better than no funding, but the whole system of federal highway money has been stalled in place for years because Congress hasn’t been able to agree on a bipartisan, long-term extension.
The issue affects Mississippi and all other states because federal funding is the source for most of the nation’s highway infrastructure.
Mississippi Department of Transportation District Engineer Bill Jamieson, whose job is implementing the policies and plans approved by the Transportation Commission, last month lamented the lack of long-term certainty at the federal level.
“That’s where we get a lot of our money for highways,” he said.
Jamieson isn’t critical of the money already in hand. His district includes the new Mississippi Highway 9, scheduled for late summer opening, major work on Mississippi Highway 15 in Union County (eventually Tippah and Pontotoc, too) and the expected letting this month of a paving contract for the new Mississippi Highway 6 from Tupelo to the Black Zion community in Pontotoc County, effectively completing the new route between Tupelo and Oxford. The contract is projected at $35 million.
Walking beyond what’s already funded enters the uncertain zone caused in part by lack of a long-term federal program.
Jamieson said on a Wednesday tour of area construction projects that $188 million more is needed to complete all four-laning and five-laning plans for Highway 15.
That is the kind of long-term money affected by uncertainty at the federal level.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas J. Donohue, in an op-ed column written for MCT Information Services, provides a five-point plan to rebuild American infrastructure:
• First, pass all the “core transportation bills.” Lawmakers must pass legislation to maintain investment in roads, bridges, transit and water systems with multi-year funding.
• Second, Congress must “align federal policy, programs and resources with national needs,” stopping “political redistribution” of federal dollars.
• Third, better leverage private capital. Revise funding mechanisms that could access an additional $250 billion in global private capital that’s “out of play.” He said the additional capital could create 1.9 million new jobs over 10 years.
• Fourth, “Limit environmental reviews to six months and forgo reviews when no significant environmental impact is expected.” Appoint a lead agency to move things along. Accelerating the permitting process, he argues, “would quickly mobilize economic activity, construction and hiring from one end of our country to the other.”
• Fifth, act with urgency. If America fails to fully act, by 2020 we’ll lose almost $1 trillion in economic growth.
Partisan charges about surface transportation funding have flown thick and heavy, but Bloomberg News reported that leadership aides for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Hose Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, are negotiating to set up a conference committee to seek agreement on a long-term bill, even meeting during the upcoming two-week recess.
The Senate’s bipartisan passage of a $109 billion, two-year bill is a starting point. In conference, it’s important to temper partisan voices and act to build roads and other transit because we’re falling behind.