Put Money on Roads, Arkansans Urge Biden


Put Money on Roads, Arkansans Urge Biden
Work has begun on a $37 million project to improve the Interstate 49 interchange at Wedington Drive in Fayetteville, and state officials hope a federal infrastructure plan will provide money for more projects. (Marty Cook)

In today’s political climate, even seemingly bipartisan issues like addressing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure can bog down quickly.

President Joe Biden released his ambitious infrastructure proposal, calling it the American Jobs Plan, on March 31, and critics immediately ripped the the $2.2 trillion package’s mix of projects.

Arkansas officials and experts agree that infrastructure critically needs investment, and they see a springboard for local and state projects if a federal infrastructure plan comes to pass.

Infrastructure, by definition, refers to roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, dams, harbors, airports, and far more. But in states like Arkansas with no subways or seaports, the idea largely stops at roads and bridges.

Biden’s plan earmarks $115 billion for those, but far more for priorities like affordable housing ($213 billion), making home health care more accessible ($400 billion) and the electric vehicle market ($174 billion).

Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton sees a lot of good in the proposal, but thinks some of its politically controversial elements are impractical. Biden proposed raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% to pay for the plan, which Newton said was “not politically palatable.”

“I’ll start with the positive: We are grateful that the president and his administration have recognized that there is this great need to invest in and modernize our infrastructure, particularly as it relates to surface transportation, which is what we are most interested in,” Newton said. “We think it is worthy of some meaningful solutions. However, a pretty big asterisk follows that. The actual proposal that he has put forward is too big. It has too many other ornaments attached to it.”

Newton said about two-thirds of the infrastructure bill deals with what she considers as non-infrastructure issues. A standard political tactic, she said, is giving hard-to-pass items a push by inserting them into bills with must-pass items.

Some of the bill’s priorities, including affordable housing and home health care, are worthy of their own debates, she said. Newton hopes wrangling and compromise will whittle the bill down to something she’ll fully support.

“I am optimistic that, during this administration, there will be a bipartisan, long-term solution to the transportation needs,” Newton said. “I don’t know how much of it is in this particular proposal.”

Engineering Solutions

Chris Brown, Fayetteville’s public works director, said federal aid would be crucial for some of the projects the city has on its wish list.

One important project would fall under the expanded definition of infrastructure: The city wants to add another main water line that runs from the Beaver Water District in Lowell to Fayetteville. The American Jobs Plan includes a proposed $111 billion for water lines and $50 billion for infrastructure resilience.

The multimillion-dollar project — Brown said there isn’t a definitive cost estimate but it would be significant — would provide expanded water capacity for the city’s growing population as well as redundancy in case something happens to the two existing lines.

“That is a very large line, very large cost,” Brown said. “Over time you can accumulate funds for that, but a large infusion of dollars through federal aid would certainly benefit a project like that. Any funding the city can get for infrastructure will be put to use.”

The city recently started a $37 million project with the Arkansas Department of Transportation to reconfigure the Interstate 49 interchange at Wedington Drive, which is perpetually clogged because of a layout designed for far less traffic than the area sees today. Groundwork has started to reroute water and sewer lines.

“The American Society of Civil Engineers has studied this question at length for years and every measure says: Our infrastructure is old,” said Matt Crafton, the chairman of the board of the engineering firm Crafton Tull. “It shouldn’t be a political issue. It is a road, a bridge, a water pipe. It’s not politics. Most people can get behind that. They can see when we improve a road, it is better for everybody.”

Earmarks Discussed

ARDOT has many projects on its back burner awaiting federal cash to become available; most cost much more than fixing the Wedington Drive interchange.

The state’s Highway Commission has been in contact with the six members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation to lobby for funding specific Arkansas-based projects. Since Biden announced his proposal, Congress has discussed using earmarks, out of use for a decade, for projects to receive federal funds. Earmarks allow a lawmaker to designate funds in a bill for a specific project.

Arkansas voters approved the permanent extension of a half-percent sales tax for highways in November that, along with a rise in the gasoline and diesel tax, will provide the state with an expected $300 million a year. So state funding for federal matching has been stabilized should the federal spigot open.

State Highway Commissioner Philip Taldo of Springdale said his dream is that the federal infrastructure plan finally results in funding for the Interstate 49 bridge over the Arkansas River at Alma. That $600 million project is a key section holding up the completion of Interstate 49, which runs from New Orleans to Canada with the exception of the stretch between Texarkana and Alma in western Arkansas.

Other multimillion-dollar projects in the wings include a $480 million Interstate 57 project in northeast Arkansas and a $125 million I-69 project in southeast Arkansas.

“What I am hoping for, and the other commissioners are hoping for, is we can get bigger projects that are hard to tag to one specific geographic area,” Taldo said. “It is hard to get support all the time for those regionally significant projects, and that is where the federal funds come in. We have to be realistic about what we are going to get. If we can get incremental help on these projects, it would go a long way.”

Not Just Roads

Taldo said projects such as the Alma bridge are economic development drivers that would provide jobs for the entire region.

But other items in Biden’s proposal would have important benefits, Taldo said. Taldo fully supports the $100 billion proposed investment in making broadband more accessible to rural and poor communities nationwide.

“People might say, ‘I don’t know about broadband,’ but it is a huge education tool,” Taldo said. “There are kids in Arkansas who have to go sit outside of a McDonald’s to use their WiFi to do their homework. We build schools and we build roads to get to schools; this is no different. Putting in broadband is the same thing as building a road to get to school.

“These kids have to have it to keep up with their own classmates. It’s not just the country, the state or the world. They have to keep up in their own classroom.”