Group created on road funding

Governor: Role of truckers key

HOT SPRINGS -- Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he will put together a 20-member working group tasked with examining ways to address highway-funding problems in Arkansas.

Hutchinson, addressing members of the Arkansas Trucking Association during its business conference in Hot Springs, said he had signed an executive order creating the group earlier in the day. Hutchinson said it fulfilled his commitment to re-examine ways to fund the state's highways after opposing a bill, during the legislative session, that would have shifted as much as $2.8 billion over 10 years from general revenue to state highway maintenance.

"I was consistently asked about highway funding, and my thought was we didn't have time to address it in the regular session," Hutchinson said. "But I also recognized the need."

Hutchinson said he plans to have members of the working group in place over the next few days. The group will include the Highway and Transportation Department director or a designee, a member of the state Highway Commission, a member of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, among others.

Hutchinson also said he will appoint a representative from the Arkansas Trucking Association.

"Truckers have always been a critical voice in whether highway initiatives are successful or not," Hutchinson said. "Highways are the lifeblood of your industry, and you, more than anyone, need to have adequate repair to make sure that you have sufficient renovation of our highways and development of highways in the future."

The executive order said the group will explore alternative means and strategies to fund the construction, reconstruction and maintenance of the state's transportation infrastructure. Fuel taxes have been the traditional source of money for the Highway Department, but funding is waning because of matters like more fuel-efficient vehicles and rising construction costs.

Scott Bennett, director of the Highway Department, told the Arkansas Trucking Association later Thursday that the state pulled more than 60 projects totaling $162 million because of funding problems. Bennett projected that the number could climb to 120 projects totaling $490 million in 2015 without a long-term solution for funding.

"Hopefully it will mean a sustainable source of revenue for highway improvements," Bennett said of the working group. "That's really the goal, is to have something that can keep up with inflation, something that grows over time so we can continue to make highway improvements.

"I'm extremely happy that he has shown the leadership in being able to take that step."

Highway funding was the No. 1 priority of the Arkansas Trucking Association when a small group of executives visited the state's federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., last month.

Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said before the trip that the association supported increasing and indexing the fuel tax to help stabilize the federal Highway Trust Fund, along with a "user's pay" principle. The fuel tax currently is capped at 18.4 cents per gallon for regular fuel and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel.

Butch Rice, president and chief executive officer of Stallion Transportation Group in Beebe, maintained the stance Thursday. Rice, who was named the Arkansas Trucking Association's new chairman, said highway funding would remain the immediate priority for the association.

"This infrastructure problem has got to be fixed," Rice said. "The interstates are like your office. We conduct all of our business on the interstate like you conduct business in your office. And we don't mind paying for it. We don't mind paying the taxes to help keep the roads in better conditions. I think that's the hurdle that we're having to overcome right now."

Hutchinson said a timeline for highway-funding solutions will not be "artificially set" for the working group but will be dictated on how it arrives at a consensus. Hutchinson was asked if there were possible solutions other than shifting revenue or increasing taxes and said all options will be examined.

"I expect this working group to investigate the facts to make sure we're all dealing with the same numbers and we understand the picture," Hutchinson said.

Business on 05/01/2015

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