The Oklahoman: Prospect of long-term road bill from D.C. is encouraging

By:  The Oklahoman Editorial Board
Click here to read at The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA’S Jim Inhofe regularly ranks as one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, a distinction he wears proudly. Sen. Barbara Boxer, Democrat from California, is at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Yet these two see eye to eye on the need to take care of America’s roads and bridges.

Polarization in the nation’s capital? It’s not in evidence on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where Inhofe, R-Tulsa, is chairman and Boxer is the ranking member. This week the pair announced agreement on a six-year highway funding bill that, if approved by Congress, will mean nearly $4.2 billion for Oklahoma during that time.

“I think if you have a heartbeat and a pulse, you understand this needs to be done,” Boxer said. She’s right about that. The last time Congress approved a long-term funding bill was 2005 — a decade ago — and since its expiration in 2011, Congress has resorted to short-term funding fixes that leave state transportation officials with heartburn.

Long-term funding is necessary for states to do long-range planning of road and bridge repair and replacement. The patches applied by Congress in recent years throw those plans into a state of flux and ultimately can add to the cost of projects.

Boxer said Democrats plan to cooperate on this bill — on Wednesday, the bill received unanimous support from Inhofe’s committee. Inhofe said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised to schedule a vote soon. There is work ahead for Inhofe, however, in convincing other Republicans to back the bill.

Many in the GOP push regularly for less government spending, and there’s certainly good reason for that. Inhofe’s regular rebuttal, however, has been that maintaining infrastructure is one of government’s core purposes. There is merit in that argument.

Another challenge will be finding the money to pay for all six years of the new bill. Revenue from the federal gas tax primarily pays for federal road and bridge programs, yet that highway trust fund has been shrinking as a result of Americans driving fewer miles and doing so in more fuel-efficient vehicles.

As it stands, Inhofe said, the new bill would cost $90 billion more than the fund is expected to produce during the six-year time frame. It’ll be up to the Finance and Ways and Means committees to figure out where that money should come from.

The 2005 highway bill included, among other things, $126 million for the now-completed Oklahoma City Crosstown Expressway. It also increased the state’s annual allocation of construction funds.

The new bill would direct $657 million to Oklahoma in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, with small increases built in each year after that. For Oklahoma City, the focus might wind up being on alleviating congestion along areas of Interstate 40, such as east of downtown near Tinker Air Force Base.

That will be determined soon enough. The immediate task is to get this long-term highway bill through Congress and to the president’s desk, which may not be easy. But the fact the bill has bipartisan support will help. So too will the fact that Inhofe is a bulldog on transportation, something Oklahomans who drive our roads and highways every day should appreciate.