Congress recently took an important step to ensure that America’s roads and bridges continue to receive the maintenance and upgrades they need. Passage of the “Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014” offers a necessary short-term fix to the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund. Without congressional action, funding for federal surface transportation programs would have expired at the end of September, putting many critical public infrastructure projects at risk of being left incomplete. Moreover, there would have been no funding for any new projects in 2015, significantly impacting construction and engineering jobs.
A long-term transportation plan is still an immediate priority for lawmakers, who have a responsibility to address America’s backlog of infrastructure needs. As a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I am directly involved in this process and look forward to debating a comprehensive bill in the coming months.
An efficient and effective transportation network plays an instrumental role in the vitality of our communities. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that poor infrastructure could cost our country 3.5 million jobs and nearly $1 trillion in business sales by 2020. With a modern system of roads and bridges, commerce can flow uninterrupted, keeping prices from rising for consumers.
Local leaders are on the front lines of America’s transportation challenges but often lack the resources to pay for urgent improvements. Less than 15 percent of all authorized federal highway funds and only one grant program are available to cities and counties. This grant program is both underfunded and overwhelmed with requests.
As Congress moves forward with a long-term highway bill, I plan to join Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in offering legislation to empower local officials with more control in addressing the transportation needs of their communities. Our bipartisan measure would allow states to hold competitions for federal funds, giving local stakeholders an opportunity to develop solutions that best suit their transportation priorities. Instead of federal bureaucrats making the decisions, a local panel would judge the projects based on their improvements to the transportation system, innovation and impact on the economy. In this way, the most targeted and cost-effective projects are prioritized, promoting wiser use of taxpayer dollars.
Mississippi benefits from important federal investments in transportation. A new part of Highway 6 stretching from Tupelo into Pontotoc County is the product of federal funds administered by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Under a competitive grant process, other infrastructure proposals across our state could have a fighting chance. For instance, in Hattiesburg, a project to provide reliable and safe transportation for the Twin Forks community and commuters from Petal would encourage business growth and improve access to police, ambulance, and fire services. Another proposal for strategic road improvements in Gulfport would establish an emergency evacuation route. Each could improve the quality of life for residents in constructive ways.
Instead of worrying about funding fluctuations in Washington, local officials should have confidence and certainty when dealing with transportation issues in their communities. They know the true needs of local residents, and federal policy should recognize the value of this input. A robust transportation system is an investment with many dividends, not least in boosting public safety and America’s future economic competitiveness.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker is a Republican representing Mississippi. He resides in Tupelo. Contact him through 30 West Jefferson St., Suite B, Tupelo, MS 38804, P.O. Box 3777, Tupelo, MS 38803, or call (662) 844-5010.