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Yet another panel of Arkansas citizens has taken on what seems like an impossible mission.

On Wednesday, a working group set out to study the state's highway funding challenge, expecting to present its recommendations by the end of the year.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the working group back in April and this week set 20 people -- highway officials, business representatives, legislators, education leaders and others -- to work on what is definitely a nagging state problem.

The problem is all the more acute in congested Northwest Arkansas, where traffic already snarls daily and continued growth promises even more struggle on the roadways.

For the record, local governments pour a lot of their resources into the region's roads, and Northwest Arkansas gets its share of what money the state has available.

The overarching problem is that the state simply doesn't have money enough to meet all of its highway needs. Nor will there be enough money, unless someone comes up with an acceptable alternative revenue source.

The key word here is "acceptable."

This is hardly the first time highway funding has been studied. But past recommendations haven't been acceptable, including one offered during the last regular session when there was yet another run at converting general fund money to highway use.

It was actually just the latest version of a proposal to convert general fund money to highways. It had been tried before and failed.

Gov. Hutchinson, like Gov. Mike Beebe before him, rightly opposed the plan, which he said would have threatened his balanced budget.

The general fund pays for schools and prisons and most other governmental functions. Those entities can scarcely afford to lose revenue to highways.

For those who don't know, highways have traditionally been paid for through a dedicated revenue stream, mostly from fuel taxes and license fees.

Those fuel-tax generated dollars got the job done for decades, even though they had to be increased from time to time. Then, as fuel prices rose, vehicles became more fuel-efficient and drivers more conscious of their travel. Fuel taxes, calculated per gallon, flat-lined as a revenue source.

Over time, the gap between what the state brings in for highways and what highway officials say they need has broadened. Currently, they identify more than $20 billion in highway needs over the next decade, compared to $3.6 billion in revenue from both the state and federal governments during the same 10 years.

The numbers are out there, derived in part by educated guesses; but the point is the revenue available, or expected, for state highways is way less than what is needed to maintain and improve the state's roadways.

So, Hutchinson has asked this working group to try again to come up with highway funding options.

He'd promised, after opposing the bill that would have transferred money from the general fund to highways, to create the working group.

On Thursday, he tried to give the panel some direction, essentially reminding them of the political reality that what they recommend must be something that can pass the Legislature and be supported by the public.

"That's got to be part of the equation," Hutchinson said at the panel's first meeting.

He didn't specifically take a revenue transfer off the table, but he encouraged the panel to think out of the box.

He did suggest including public-private partnerships and using vehicle miles traveled to calculate taxes rather than taxing gallons of fuel.

He wants the working group to consider "where we're going to be 10 years from now" and asked how many cars on the road then might be electric cars, requiring none of the fuel that is taxed now.

The need for well-maintained highways won't change, so the revenue sources to build and maintain them must.

And so it falls to the working group to re-examine options that previous panels have considered, to survey what other states are doing and to search for some different funding solution.

Their work comes, of course, in a less-than-encouraging environment. No one likes taxes and few want to pay more, even if they would benefit from better roads.

Still, whatever the solution might be, someone will have to pay more if there is to be more money for highways.

So, the impossible part of the working group's mission is to come up with something that will pass the acceptability test and still plug the revenue gap for highway funding.

Commentary on 06/28/2015

Print Headline: Is highway solution possible?

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