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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Construction crews work on the Big Rock interchange in west Little Rock in this 2015 file photo. - Photo by Stephen B. Thornton

HOT SPRINGS -- Bridges will have to collapse and major accidents occur on deteriorated roads before the Arkansas Legislature enacts laws to raise more money for highways, two key lawmakers said Wednesday in Hot Springs.

During this year's regular legislative session, state Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, failed to get House approval to ask voters for a bond issue funded by a 6.5 percent sales tax on wholesale fuel prices and dedicated for highway maintenance. The statewide tax would have raised an estimated $200 million a year.

Two years ago, Douglas withdrew his bill to gradually transfer state general tax revenue from car-related items to highways that would have cost nearly $35 million in the initial year and $548 million once fully implemented.

"I don't see anything right now, with the makeup of the Legislature, passing the Legislature," Douglas said during a panel discussion with eight lawmakers at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission's Arkansas Rural Development Conference.

"I think it is going to have to be a ballot initiative out there to get something in front of the public, and the public want better roads. They want their roads maintained. It's like the old Fram oil commercial: pay me now for an oil filter or pay me later for an overhaul," he said.

"When we start having bridges collapse and people killed, then we'll start funding highways," Douglas said.

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House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said that when "you start to have critical accidents and ... the bridge collapse scenario, then I think you're going to get people take it serious.

"Right now, everybody kind of gets to push this off and say, ... 'I just don't want to travel those roads very often,' so they rationalize it away," he said.

"I think as this mushrooms out where everybody's roads are starting to get really bad, you'll start to see a little bit more of a collective consciousness toward actually solving the problem.

"We give the Highway Department a lot of grief over a lot of issues. But we have set ourselves up for failure with the funding formulas they have [and] with the amount of highways we have to maintain. There is no way that you're going to be able to keep this course, so something is going to have to give."

Gillam said "no one" wanted to transfer state general revenue to the state Highway and Transportation Department two years ago because "it took away funding from other programs and things that they felt were too valuable."

"But at the same token, then they say, 'Well, we don't want to add any new money to it. We don't need any taxes. We don't want anything.'

"But yet then they turn right around and get after all the legislators, the senators and House members and then say, 'You've got to fix it.' But if you don't want to put any more money into it and you don't want to have any transfers, there is no way you're going to solve the problem."

Gillam's and Douglas' remarks come about a month after the state Highway Commission started to turn its attention to considering the option of raising more money for road construction though a proposed initiated act that would require voter approval.

Placing an initiated act on the November 2018 ballot would require the gathering of about 68,000 signatures of registered voters by early July of next year.

The Highway Commission is expected to discuss the idea further on June 7, said Craig Douglass, executive director of the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation.

Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, said she talked with a political consultant in Tennessee, where the Legislature cut taxes, and approved gas and diesel tax increases.

"Because they offset each other, the general public was more amenable to it, so maybe in hindsight instead of just having the straight $50 million tax cut, we should have offset it with some sort of increase with gas taxes or something like that," she said.

She said the newly formed Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force could consider that option as part of its deliberations in the next year and a half.

This year's Legislature passed Gov. Asa Hutchinson's plan to cut income tax rates for Arkansans with taxable incomes below $21,000, effective Jan. 1, 2019. That's projected by the state to reduce state general revenue by $25 million in fiscal 2019 and $50 million in fiscal 2020.

For more highway funds, Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, said "I would take this program and move it into our general fund.

"That would force all of our departments to cut across the board. No one likes that. It would be a lot of noise made. But I think it would work," he said.

Nearly a month ago, Hutchinson cut $70 million from the state's general revenue budget of $5.33 billion for fiscal 2017, which ends June 30. He cited lagging sales and corporate income tax collections as the reason.

The Republican governor also cut the state's $5.49 billion general revenue budget for fiscal 2018 by $43 million.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said the Highway Commission is spending money based on a plan "that includes connectivity to rural areas.

"But there has to be a traffic count component, or we'll just continue to get further and further behind and our roads are going to deteriorate even greater and congestion will get greater and [hurt] the economic ability to grow, especially up in Northwest Arkansas where traffic is becoming a real inhibitor to recruiting," he said.

Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, said the eight counties in his district have "roads that are coming apart."

"They are not being taken care of very well at all. I am on record as voting against highway revenue formula increases until such time we get some commitment to maintenance dollars in rural Arkansas," he said.

"It doesn't make sense to let the roads we have go to pieces with the money already spent on them. There are big holes in a lot of them. I ride a bicycle most days. Some days I dodge holes to avoid flipping over the handle bars."

Teague said he drives on Interstate 30 to Little Rock and back home a few times a week.

"It's just packed solid. We have got to have some kind of plan," he said.

Metro on 05/25/2017

Print Headline: No road funds till bridges fall, crashes climb, say 2 legislators

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  • mrcharles
    May 25, 2017 at 9:16 a.m.

    Oh , another sound gop platform for making America turn into a 3rd world country , but at least a G-dly country with all the prayers for the many deceased.

    Of course govenment shouldnt be involved in transportation , as inovation should be able to have private enterprise come up with star trek transporters , or ferry boats for the rivers and streams, and toll roads if you want to use gasoline means of travel. Though to help the oil industry [ even more than now] gop can mandate you must start you gasoline thing and let is set out in the drive running for at least 6 hours per day to add texture and color to the air.

  • ThisisInsane
    May 25, 2017 at 9:48 a.m.

    Yeah. This makes perfect sense. They want to increase taxes, on the public, that is already being taxed to death, to pay for the highway infrastructure upkeep, which THEY (Legislators) failed to provide for, when they were collecting all of the gas taxes, which I thought were MEANT for that purpose. Where did that funding go? People know it failed to keep the highway department funded to maintain the roads, because the salaries for those people have risen out of control, so as to eat into said funding. Equipment costs have risen, and they have been money grubbing and crying poor for years. But, I bet the Legislators and the top ranking people in the highway dept are all driving new cars. Typical living beyond our means, and ripping off the public. The people of the state, sure wear some pricey clothes, you know?

  • georg137
    May 25, 2017 at 10:06 a.m.

    The article fails to mention the long-term damage to roads and bridges caused by trucking. It doesn't take a traffic engineer to recognize the huge long-term impact of multi-axle, multi-trailer, kiloton vehicles. They have increased in size and number to the point that by most metrics, they are exceeding parity with private passenger vehicles. Let those who cause the damage pay their share. Certainly with the low wages that truckers now make, with the economies of scale from their huge fleets, and with the increased profits from lower corporate taxes, there will be some tiny fraction of their bottom line that would pay for the damage they cause to our infrastructure.

  • FireEyes
    May 25, 2017 at 12:14 p.m.

    Yeah, right blame the GOP. When Huckabee left office, he left a surplus and then the spend crazy dems ran through it like it would never end. Blaming the newly in house party for issues that have taken decades to create is ludicrous, but typical of BOTH parties.

    To see which party turns places into third world sites, see Detroit run by dems for decades.

    Turning over transportation to the private sector sounds great.........until WHO in the private sector gets it??? Would each square mile be handled by a different firm with different standards???? Think it through.

    Bring back the spending to necessary items and cut out the pork. It won't happen, but that is part of the answer.

  • Whippersnapper
    May 25, 2017 at 12:49 p.m.

    How about showing us you are serious by ending the GIF program, dear legislators? As long as you are keeping millions of dollars a year for your pork slushee projects, don't tell us you need even more money for "necessities."

  • RBBrittain
    May 25, 2017 at 3:34 p.m.

    ThisisInsane, YOU are insane. Gas & diesel taxes DO go to highways as required by law. The problem is, while the cost of building & maintaining roads increases (especially as fuel prices increase), fuel tax revenue does NOT increase because it's a fixed amount per gallon REGARDLESS of price. Because of that, many states' DOTs now barely have enough money for routine maintenance; Missouri's MoDOT & Louisiana's LaDOTD are in even worse shape than AHTD. If there IS waste, it's because our state highway system is nearly twice as big as it should be; AHTD's administrative costs are in line with the rest of the country (so no, they're NOT out buying new cars).

  • outinthesticks
    May 26, 2017 at 9:14 a.m.

    Arkansas already has the highest per gallon gasoline tax compared to the adjoining states, and our per capita miles driven are equivalent. IMHO, there is too much emphasis on construction of NEW roads and not enough on repairing the existing ones. Look at the proposed I-30 project through downtown. Folks from other states laugh when comparing the "bad" LR traffic to their cities.

  • PM1118
    May 26, 2017 at 6:25 p.m.

    Hope these idiots are on the bridge when it falls - or they become the increase in crashes!

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