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NW Ark lawmakers want road panel to review distribution of highway funds

NW Ark lawmakers want road panel to review distribution of highway funds

Posted By Zack Stovall On July 6, 2009 @ 1:00 am In Arkansas News Bureau, News, Top Stories | No Comments

By Rob Moritz
Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK — Some Northwest Arkansas lawmakers worry that a state panel created this year to find a new source for funding state highways will not address what some view as the most pressing issue — how the state Highway Commission currently allocates money to road projects across the state.

They want the bulk of the funds to flow to population centers with the most traffic, and not split equally among regions of the state as the Highway Commission has done for years.

But Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy, chairman of the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Committee on Highway Finance, said that view does not take into account the panel’s true purpose or the reason why the current road funding system is in place.

The Legislature this year created the highway committee to research and recommend a new funding source for highway construction in the face of ever increasing road needs and diminishing returns from fuel taxes as gas prices prompt drivers to travel less.

The 19-member panel will consider a number of highway funding options, including raising property taxes, increasing state fuel taxes and tapping general revenue.

It is to submit recommendations to the Legislature and Gov. Mike Beebe by July 1, 2010, in advance of the 2011 regular legislative session.

But divergent views on the panel’s role and calls for a change in the way funds are distributed pose a potential roadblock to building the consensus necessary to pass the first state highway funding program since 1999.

That year, the Legislature raised gasoline and diesel taxes to fund state highway improvements as part of then-Gov. Mike Huckabee’s $575 million plan to improve the state’s crumbling interstate highways.

Voters later in 1999 approved a bond program to fund the interstate construction, to be repaid with future federal highway dollars.

“Voters in Pulaski County and Northwest Arkansas are not going to vote for any (new) funding source (for state highways) as long as the distribution of the funding is this bad,” said Rep. Mark Martin, R-Prairie Grove, who wants the new highway panel to recommend changes in the way road funds are distributed.

“That is diametrically opposed to the real charge for this committee,” Capps said. “We’re not out there to tell the Highway Commission where to spend the money. They know where to spend the money. This is an overall plan for overall money for the highway department.”

Gov. Mike Beebe said he, too, would prefer highway money follow the traffic, but he said funding distribution was not the road committee’s responsibility.

“I prefer that the money follow the cars, reserving obviously, the right in some economic development purposes to weigh against that,” the governor said. “I’ve tried to impress that on our commissioners. Obviously, there is some resistance to that.”

Regardless, the highway panel was not created to address the issue, he said.

Martin attended the committee’s June meeting and sat at the table, though he is not a member of the panel. He spent much of his time chronicling the meeting on his Internet blog.

After hearing presentations that suggested the state highway system is in pretty good shape compared to others in the region, and that some regions of Arkansas have more needs than others, Martin wrote, “That means what we have is regional needs, but don’t need large scale statewide investments.”

He also wrote that Arkansas voters “will support highway funding if the fairness in distribution is addressed.”

He said later pressing regional needs should be targeted first.

“The committee has not addressed looking at those regional differences in need or asked what would be the best way to pay for those needs,” he told the Arkansas News Bureau.

Instead, he said, the panel appeared more worried about developing a study that can later be used to “convince voters to vote for whatever funding they come up with, before they even establish a funding source.”

During the meeting, committee member Bill Fletcher of Hot Springs said there must be “something to present to the mass of the public that you can put on TV and be understood in 30 seconds.”

Other committee members agreed, saying that whatever they propose will have to be later presented to Arkansans for their approval.

Capps said the panel’s narrow focus is to develop a new statewide source for supplementing highway funding, period, and that the study discussed at the June meeting would only be used when the committee has its proposals completed and takes them to various areas of the state for public input.

In May, state Highway Director Dan Flowers told the panel that revenues from fuel taxes have been flat for years and the state is seeing a decline in that revenue stream. He said it would take about $200 million more annual just to maintain current road conditions.

Former highway commissioner Ron Harrod of Little Rock, who represented Southwest Arkansas during his 10-year tenure on the panel, said changing the way the commission distributes highway funds would be dangerous to some areas of the state.

“If you pull the money and let the money follow the traffic you abandon half the system,” Harrod said, noting that nearly 50 percent of state roads handle about 80 percent of the traffic.

“What would happen, you couldn’t get crops out of eastern Arkansas because the farm to market system, where they bring the grains to the driers and all of that, would be mud if they weren’t maintained,” Harrod said.

“In Southeast Arkansas, you wouldn’t have any roads for farming or timber, in Southwest Arkansas you couldn’t get the logs and pulpwood out.”

The big question, Harrod said, is “do you want all the roads maintained, or do you want those without (heavy) traffic to pay for their own maintenance?”

If the blue ribbon committee can find an adequate funding source, there would be funding for all roadway repairs, he said, adding, “the money right now just isn’t there.”

Highway Commission spokesman Randy Ort acknowledged that highway needs in the populous, traffic-congested central and northwest parts of the state are not being met. Neither are the needs in agricultural eastern and southern Arkansas, where farmers are troubled by narrow bridges and roads with no shoulders, he said.

“It’s not because of the distribution in funds, it’s because we don’t have the money,” Ort said. “No one is getting what they need.”

Another concern of some lawmakers is representation on the five-member highway commission to which gubernatorial appointees serve 10-year terms.

Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, complained that while congressional district lines are redrawn every 10 years to take into account population shifts, boundaries for the state’s 10 highway districts have remained the same since 1935.

As a result, Hutchinson said, the 4th District, which spans from the  Mississippi border to the Texas and Oklahoma borders across southern Arkansas, is represented by all five of the highway commissioners while most of the 3rd District in the northwest corner of the state is represented by just one commissioner.

But Ort said Hutchinson and others do not understand that a highway commissioner does not just represent a specific region of the state.

“Each commissioner advocates for two districts and each district has the same number of highway miles,” Ort said. “The commissioners represent the whole state.”

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