The Arkansas Department of Transportation will have more money at its disposal in the next few years, and Director Lorie Tudor is excited about the possibilities.
She said the department’s funding for Arkansas roads and bridges is increasing by about $500 million per year thanks to a combination of federal and state legislation. “We are excited about it,” Tudor said.
In November 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act. For Arkansas, it means $3.6 billion for state roads and $278 million for bridges over the next five years.
The state took action on its own in the previous two years. In 2019, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed legislation to raise $95 million annually for highways, and in 2020 voters approved a permanent half-cent sales tax for highways that will mean another $205 million annually. The original half-cent sales tax for the highways fund was first approved in 2012 to last 10 years. The 2020 vote made the sales tax permanent beginning in June 2023.
Before the statewide sales tax vote in 2020, ArDOT created its Renew Arkansas Highways Program to show voters what could be accomplished by stabilizing the state funding source and combining it with federal funding, then provided under the $305 billion Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act, passed in 2015.
The main piece of the program is ArDOT’s Connecting Arkansas Program. Its list of 30 projects was estimated to cost $1.8 billion over the next 10 years; the first CAP in 2012 had 31 projects that cost more than $2 billion.
In the shorter term, ArDOT has its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) for the years 2023 through 2026. They are the projects the department wants to get moving in the next four years.
“They may not all be let to contract within that period of time,” Tudor said. “With federal funding comes a lot of regulations and eligibility requirements. You don’t just say I’m going to do this project. You go through a long list of things to get to the point of turning the first shovel of dirt.”
The IIJA, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), also increased funding for discretionary money that states can apply for through grant proposals.
For 2023, the federal government made more than $2 billion available for its Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability & Equity (RAISE) grants. In 2022, RAISE awarded funds to 166 projects, including the $24.6 million Connect Conway trail, a 20-mile trail to connect secluded and underserved areas in Conway. The state also applied for a RAISE grant for a Highway 5 widening project in Bryant that wasn’t awarded. ArDOT will reapply the project for a 2023 grant.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that six communities in Arkansas would receive $2 million through the BIL’s Safe Streets & Roads for All grant program. Tudor said ArDOT is now working with consultants for its grant proposals.
“There is a tremendous amount of more of those discretionary grant funds that you have to apply for,” Tudor said. “You have to compete with all the other states. A big portion of the IIJA does not just automatically go to each state. It is a big, involved process. It’s a lot of money.”
Tudor said a successful grant application is worth the expense.
“We have really tried to up our game in applications,” Tudor said. “We started using consultants to make them more polished and more competitive. It costs money to get those applications put together, but if you win the grant, of course, it is money well spent.”
Tudor said the department is also working with the state’s congressional delegation on infrastructure needs.
“It’s just a different animal,” Tudor said. “You have to campaign, lobby for it, work at it. As a state DoT, we are figuring it out as we go, doing the best we can. We are trying to get every dollar we can for Arkansas.”
Tudor said while her department does have ambitious project lists for the next four and 10 years, it would be difficult to pinpoint which specific projects have received green lights because of the increase in funding.
But not all of the projects the department is funding are huge and expensive. Tudor said ArDOT sets aside $25 million annually for what she calls partnering projects, which are funded with small amounts by the department based on recommendations from the state Highway Commission. The money is directed to cities and counties that have local projects in desperate need of financing.
For example, ArDOT contributed $12.5 million, which was matched by Benton County, to build a new interchange on Interstate 49 in northwest Arkansas. The department also contributed $750,000 for a $900,000 highway intersection improvement in Mississippi County.
“We set aside $25 million a year for partnering so when cities and counties have something that is locally important to them,” Tudor said. “ArDOT tries to spend our money for regional, big projects. But stuff comes up and cities and counties come to us, and they have a need but they can’t fully fund it. This allows us to come to the table and partner.
“It’s a great program. It’s some really cool little projects. Nothing really major but very important to the areas.”