There was almost too much open road for Scott Bennett to contemplate. So the director of the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department had to narrow his options in January after Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked him to put together a list of the state’s top-priority highway projects.
The National Governors Association, working with Donald Trump’s transition team in the weeks before he was inaugurated president, had sent a letter to the governors asking for potential infrastructure projects.
Trump, in his acceptance speech the day after he was elected, had promised $1 trillion in infrastructure im-provements over the next 10 years. The “Wish List” was a chance to get projects up for consideration.
For Bennett, the problem wasn’t finding something to submit; it was ranking the many possibilities. Like many states, Arkansas has a long list of infrastructure needs and not nearly enough money to even begin to fix them.
“Maybe we should have turned in our 10-year need study that shows there is a $19 billion shortfall, and say ‘Here’s what we need,’ ” Bennett said.
He and his department eventually submitted two bridge projects for Hutchinson’s consideration:
- A 23-mile section of Interstate 69 that includes a bridge, called the Great River Bridge, across the Mississippi River in southeast Arkansas, estimated to cost $910 million; and
- A 13.7-mile section of Interstate 49 with a bridge across the Arkansas River in the Fort Smith area, with a price tag of $380 million.
“What I think is they’re using this as a reason to justify a larger federal program,” Bennett said. “We’ve done this from time to time in the past, either when the administration or someone in Washington is talking about a program. They’ll ask us, ‘How much money could you spend? If you had this size of a program what would you do?’
“I think it is really being done as a way to highlight how many critical needs there are out there just waiting in the wings on funds to be able to build.”
Of the two bridge projects, Bennett said the Great River Bridge is the closest to being “shovel ready.” If Bennett had unlimited wishes — or bottomless pockets — he would like to see the entire Interstate 69 segment of Arkansas completed.
I-69 is designed to run from Michigan to Texas with approximately 185 miles running through Arkansas. The Great River Bridge project would connect U.S. 65 near McGehee with Highway 1 in Benoit, Mississippi.
Bennett said the design is mostly finished and the state has the environmental clearances for the work. If money were available, Bennett believes construction could start this year.
“I really believe if you could get that [23-mile] part of it built, it would be a whole lot easier to phase the rest of it in over a period of time,” said Bennett. “That’s the one sticking point. If you can’t get across the river, it doesn’t really do you any good to build the rest of it. You can’t really phase in a river bridge.”
The I-49 bridge project east of Fort Smith would connect Interstate 40 with Highway 22. Bennett said it would have great economic development potential because it would open up more construction opportunities in the Fort Smith area as well as alleviating some traffic congestion.
“I-49 has been another priority for a long time,” Bennett said. “That’s the next logical section.”
Logical, but not as convenient as the Great River Bridge proposal, Bennett said.
“Actually that section of I-49, if the manna were to fall from heaven, it would be difficult, almost impossible to turn dirt on that section this year,” Bennett said. “We don’t have it designed yet. We’ve got environmental clearance, but it’s from several years ago. That has been one of the governor’s priorities, one of his most often-mentioned projects.”
Bennett said his department originally submitted several more projects to the governor, then trimmed the wish list back to two. The Trump administration had asked for three to five projects from each state, including infrastructure items such as airports, dams and sea ports.
California, for example, turned in 51 projects with a total price tag of approximately $100 billion. All the projects and all the proposed costs are just planning material until Congress approves an actual infrastructure bill. And when that could happen is anyone’s guess.
“That’s the $1 trillion-over-10-years question,” Bennett said. “We don’t know.”
In December 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which called for $305 billion in infrastructure spending during the next five years. Some estimates predict a revenue shortfall in the the Federal Highway Trust Fund of approximately a $100 billion by 2026.
Bennett said state funds are always badly needed for its own work and to match federal funds as required for joint construction projects. Bennett said Arkansas needs about double the current $400 million in annual revenue for transportation.
“The issue is not specific to Arkansas; it happens in most of the states and even at the federal level,” Bennett said. “It’s not, ‘Do you need more money to invest in a highway program?’ It’s really, how are we going to do it? No one can settle on how you do it.
“There’s only two ways to do: You either raise taxes and fees or you reallocate the existing capital you have coming in. That’s it.”
Bennett said while the two bridge projects are the state’s top priorities for new infrastructure, his department’s No. 1 priority is to take care of existing infrastructure. Maintaining and renovating roads and bridges is costly and endless. (See Arkansas Bridges Still Need Improvements.)
“That was one of the things I went over with everybody on the Governor’s Working Group on Highway Funding,” Bennett said. “We set some targets for additional funding, and you get up to about $400 million a year. We said $400 million a year buys about 8-10 years from now.
“Probably $150 to $200 million of that, close to half, would be spent on maintaining the system that we have. That means you have roads in bad condition, so you overlay them. You have bridges that are in bad condition, so you replace them.
“Then another $150 million would go to a capital type of program where you’re widening roads and building new interchanges for economic development.
If you’re just throwing out new projects for a wish list, I think our priority has to be taking care of what we have.”