Road Funding in Arkansas Still Elusive

Road Funding in Arkansas Still Elusive
The $25 million Cabot North Interchange project was mutually funded by the city of Cabot and the Arkansas Department of Transportation. (Karen E. Segrave)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson sees highway funding as a priority when the state’s next legislative session opens in January.

Hutchinson spoke Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Good Roads Foundation. The foundation released a report in October, along with the state Chamber of Commerce, detailing what additional investment in Arkansas’ decrepit highway network would mean.

Not to beat a dead horse, but we have all been down this pothole-pocked road before. Let us cross our fingers and rub our rabbits’ feet that this time something meaningful will happen.

Hutchinson appointed a Highway Funding Working Group in 2015 to come up with proposals for raising the money. One of the group’s main ideas included raising the tax on gasoline and diesel, which is a killer to any deal in the state currently.

Hutchinson has proposed eliminating bureaucratic waste and transferring money from other sources to highway funding. Last year, the Arkansas Highway Commission considered putting a highway funding plan on the 2018 midterm ballot.

And yet no more money is coming to help the state’s 10,000-plus miles of highways and bridges. Scott Bennett, the director of the state’s Department of Transportation, has said an additional $400 million is needed each year to adequately take care of current and future needs.

At a Wednesday luncheon at the state’s Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock, Hutchinson said the new revenue needed for highways was between $300 million and $400 million.

Last year, Philip Taldo told me the state was getting into a “critical position” because of the inability to find the needed revenue stream. Taldo is a member of the state Highway Commission and was a member of the Highway Funding Group.

“Since we didn’t get it done, we are in kind of a critical position as far as maintaining our roads,” Taldo said. “The worse they get, the price just compounds. Instead of costing twice as much, it costs five times as much if you let it get to a really bad situation.”

The Good Roads Foundation’s report, based on research by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said an investment of $478 million in Arkansas infrastructure would have an economic impact of at least $1.3 billion, which it called conservative.

Getting that theoretical $478 million (or the governor’s $300 million-$400 million) seems a fool’s errand, of course. Hutchinson released a budget proposal Wednesday that called for an income tax cut for the highest earners, a 2 percent increase in spending but nothing about highway funding.

Joe Quinn, the newly minted executive director of the Good Roads Foundation, said his group doesn’t advocate for any specific funding number or source but tries to educate the public about the growing gap between what Arkansas has and what it needs.

“It gets wider every year,” Quinn said. “We are not really keeping up with it.”

The Good Roads Foundation report said a $478 million increase would generate more than $940 million in sales, $482 million in gross domestic product growth, $56.7 million in taxes and 5,729 jobs. Those jobs would pay $253 million in annual wages.

And better roads mean a shorter commute time with better fuel efficiency and fewer accidents. Doesn’t everyone want to be able to get to work quicker?

I am confident the Legislature won’t do it, but any funding proposal has to include raising the gasoline and diesel tax. The tax alone will not solve the funding gap — unless aliens take over the legislative body and raise the tax the 34 cents per gallon. That would raise $478 million.

But raising the tax 5 cents — assuming every additional penny per gallon would generate $14 million — would raise $70 million. That’s a start; it’s almost a quarter of the way to the governor’s $300 million minimum.

“For a number that size, you have to come up with it from different sources,” Quinn said. “There’s not going to be one magic source that you can pay for all of this.”

I know, you hear “tax” and you grit your teeth and make a fist and vow never never never. But keep this in mind: Paying 5 cents more per gallon at the pump is $3 a month for someone who uses 15 gallons a week.

Doesn’t seem that much, does it?