Posted 7/18/2013 03:38 pm
LITTLE ROCK - Even with the extra money from a sales tax increase that took effect this month, Arkansas needs an additional $200 million a year over the next decade to maintain its roads, the state's top highway official said Thursday.
Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett told a legislative panel that the sales tax approved by voters last year and the extension of a road bonds program approved in 2011 will only pay for improvements to less than 4 percent of the state's 16,400-mile highway system. The half-cent sales tax, which took effect July 1, is expected to pay for $1.8 billion in road improvements and will expire by 2023.
"We need another $200 million a year over the next 10 years just to keep everything the same," Bennett told members of the state House and Senate transportation committees. "That's with the interstate rehabilitation program, with the half-cent sales tax program, so we won't have more congestion in 10 years, we won't have any more bridges in poor condition in 10 years than we have today."
Bennett said he expects to sell the first bonds in September, which will be repaid by money from the half-cent increase. He said he expected Arkansas to begin working on the first of the projects paid for by the tax by the end of the year.
He didn't propose any ways to close the funding gap, but state highway officials and advocates backed an unsuccessful effort this year to transfer some general revenue money to highways. The proposal, which failed before a House committee in March, would have transferred sales tax dollars from new and used vehicle sales to the state highway department and local governments once the state's sales tax collections exceed $2.25 billion.
Finance officials estimated the general revenue proposal would have taken away $22 million from the general fund in 2015 and $345 million by 2024.
The proposal faced heavy opposition from Gov. Mike Beebe, as well as education and health advocates, who warned that other state services would be hurt by diverting the funds.
Rep. Jonathan Barnett, who proposed the transfer, said he's unlikely to propose a similar bill when the Legislature returns in February for a session focused primarily on the state's budget. But Barnett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he expects there to be another push for the transfer in future years.
"We're trying to keep all the conversations alive about possibilities for future revenue growth," Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, said after the hearing.
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