Short-Term Nightmare Nears End for Arkansas Highways

Short-Term Nightmare Nears End for Arkansas Highways
Steve Williams

It looks like a long-term highway funding bill is going to be signed into law by President Barack Obama next week.

Update: Obama signed the bill into law on Friday, Dec. 4, after the Senate approved the bill 83-16.

The House of Representatives on Thursday approved the bill by a vote of 359 to 65.

The bill, called the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act — or FAST Act — authorizes $305 billion in funding for the next five years. The House and Senate had earlier passed related six-year bills, and a conference committee was able to iron out a combined bill Dec. 1.

Five years seems like a long time when compared to the 35 short-term funding fixes Congress has passed in the past six years. The can won’t have to be kicked again until 2020.

For those interested in the money, FAST calls for $205 billion to be spent on highways. That’s welcome news for states looking for assurances that the money will be there so they can make long-term plans.

Arkansas recently kicked into serious discussion for its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program that will run from 2016-19 when optimism arose about Congress passing a long-term bill. The state earlier this year had to scrap some repair projects because of concerns over federal money being available.

“It’s good news for Arkansas because it allows us to plan five years into the future,” said Danny Straessle, public information officer for AHTD. “This is what we’ve been looking for: a long-term solution. Five years is a good start.”

The bill doesn’t authorize an increase in the gas and diesel tax, so there is still a shortfall between the tax revenue and spending amount by about $70 billion. Congress is scooping up that money from other sources rather than a straightforward increase in the fuel tax rate because it’s Congress.

But I digress.

Arkansas still has to do its part to be able to enjoy the bounties of FAST. Highway repair is done on an 80-20 federal-to-state funding basis, so Arkansas will have to come up with 20 percent of the money, which is why Gov. Asa Hutchinson put together a task force to craft suggestions for raising the money.

The governor has basically eliminated any chance of the state gas tax rate being raised for this. If Arkansas can’t come up with its 20 percent match, the money designated for Arkansas will be returned to the hopper for other states to use instead.

“We have to come up with a way to match that money,” Straessle said. “Arkansas has never turned away federal funds.”

The bill’s funding is, of course, the main headline, but the FAST Act also has some other aspects that the transportation industry really likes. FAST will recognize hair testing for federally required drug tests and will require a reform of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s CSA ratings (CSA is compliance, safety and accountability).

That rhythmic sound you are hearing is probably Steve Williams clapping. Williams, the CEO of Maverick USA Inc. in North Little Rock, is a huge proponent of hair testing for drug use, as is J.B. Hunt Transport Services in Lowell.

Shannon Newton, the president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said companies that used hair testing also had to do urine tests, which were the only ones recognized by the federal government. Now, Newton said, companies can use — and share the results of — hair testing without the added expense of another test.

Many companies prefer hair testing because it is more extensive and can better determine a candidate’s long-term drug use with less chance of being deceived by masking agents or short-term abstinence from drugs.

Newton hopes that more companies will use hair testing and make it a cheaper form of testing in the process.

“Everybody wants safer, drug-free drivers,” Newton said.

The CSA rankings — which one expert described as the Angie’s List of the trucking industry — was a sore spot with many companies because the ratings did not determine the cause of reported accidents. So a trucking company could have a poor rating even if the accident had nothing to do with driver error.

“The general public understands if I’m at a stop sign and someone runs into me, it doesn’t affect my safety,” Newton said. “This is a first step toward fairness in reporting.”