Matt Crafton Urges Long-Term Highway Fix

Matt Crafton Urges Long-Term Highway Fix

Matt Crafton said he’s not just thinking about the benefit to his business when he calls for the U.S. Congress to find a long-term solution to the Highway Trust Fund.

Crafton is the CEO of Crafton Tull, the state’s fifth-largest engineering firm, and he and Clare Dunn, the company’s communications and media manager, wrote in July an entry on the company’s blog titled “Seeing the Unseen: America’s Crumbling Infrastructure.” In the piece, Crafton and Dunn didn’t mention specific remedies for funding the program but did say it was imperative that Congress pass a long-term fix.

In late July, the House of Representatives and Senate passed a three-month, $8 billion bill to keep the fund alive — and give the two bodies time to think of a long-term fix by October.

Of course, this is the 34th time Congress that has passed a short-term funding patch in the past six years, so the idea that this is the final stopgap measure before a long-term solution is achieved might be a tad optimistic.

“Quite literally, the roads and bridges are crumbling beneath our feet and tires,” Crafton and Dunn wrote. “This generation must face the difficult choices before it. The hard reality is that we are literally hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars behind in the necessary investments to keep our roads, bridges, airports and water utilities in adequate condition.”

Crafton Tull does engineering work for highway projects for the states of Arkansas and Oklahoma as well as for individual cities, so a well-funded program would certainly mean Crafton Tull would have more work to do. Crafton doesn’t deny that, but he said fixing and maintaining the country’s infrastructure is more than just a business decision.

The Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department said it has postponed bids on 75 construction projects worth an estimated $335 million in 2015 because of the uncertainty surrounding the Trust Fund, which reimburses states for money they spend on projects. That means postponing projects that create jobs, as well as better and safer roads and bridges.

“As engineers, particularly engineers who work on highways every day, we see the need,” Crafton said in a phone interview. “We drive on these roads and know how impactful it is to the economy and the safety of the public. To see this crumble beneath our feet is terrible.”

Crafton, who described himself as a staunch conservative, also said it shouldn’t be a political issue. The simplest solution, for many observers, would be to raise the tax on gasoline and diesel and then index it to inflation, an idea whole-heartedly recommended by trucking associations, whose members would pay the most fuel tax.

Anything that has to do with taxes, of course, is sure to raise the hackles of many members of Congress. To be clear, raising the fuel tax would probably not be the end-all, be-all solution by itself (although it would be a long-term improvement), and other funding ideas have been floated.

“There’s no getting around it: Highways cost money,” Crafton said. “We have to pay money to build highways and bridges and keep them maintained. It’s just foolish to think we’re not going to have any more taxes. This is our country. We have to pay for it.”

Not having a long-term plan also ends up costing more money. Scott Bennett, the director of the AHTD, said the state needs millions in improvements.

Bennett said repairing a road costs $200,000 a mile, but replacing a road costs $1.5 million a mile. Putting off repairs because of funding uncertainty could cost the state $1.3 million a mile.

Mike Hill, a heavy-bridge maintenance engineer, said during an interview (see story, Page 1) that crews try to patch what they can on bridges with the time and money they have available. As Bennett said about highways, Hill said about bridges: Little cracks on bridges that aren’t repaired at low cost eventually become expensive replacements.

“Congress has repeatedly failed in its obligation to meet the needs of our country’s infrastructure funding,” Crafton and Dunn wrote. “Passing short-term funding extensions does NOT solve the problem. It is time for Congress to make the hard choices and pass a long-term transportation bill so the engineers and contractors can get to the job of rebuilding this nation.”