WASHINGTON -- At the annual National League of Cities' Congressional Conference, leaders voiced concerns about the state of America's aging roads, highways and bridges.
Mayors from Arkansas and across the nation hope the White House can deliver on promises of increased transportation infrastructure funding.
The travel arteries that criss-cross the nation have seen better days, Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin noted Wednesday. "For years, we've let what we have deteriorate and [didn't] do anything about it."
More than 2,000 mayors, city council members and other officials attended last week's conference, including mayors from Batesville, Fairfield Bay, Maumelle, North Little Rock, Springdale and Stephens, Perrin said.
Infrastructure was a major topic of conversation, he noted.
President Donald Trump's fiscal 2020 budget blueprint, which came out last week, calls for full funding of the Highway Trust Fund, plus another $200 billion for "additional infrastructure investments."
At the same time, it would cut funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation. The $21.4 billion in discretionary spending for 2020 is "a $5.9 billion or 22-percent decrease from the 2019 discretionary estimate," the budget noted.
Trump's proposed budget did not specify where the $200 billion in additional infrastructure money should be spent.
"The Administration will work with the Congress on allocating this funding, to advance projects that provide the most benefit to Americans," it stated.
Perrin said additional infrastructure spending is needed to fix what's broken and build what's needed.
The nation needs to focus on "taking care of what we built in the '50s, '60s, things like that interstate [system]," Perrin said. It also needs to fill in the gaps that remain in the existing roadway system, he said.
One of those gaps is in Maumelle, said its mayor, Caleb Norris.
The Pulaski County town didn't exist when Interstate 40 was built, in an era when federal dollars flowed more freely. Now, Maumelle is a city with a population of 18,214 and it needs additional highway connections.
In order to better access the state's main east-west corridor, a new interchange is being built. After struggling to get state or federal funds, Maumelle taxpayers finally passed a half-percent sales tax to help come up with the money, Norris said.
"There's not a whole lot of cities that have had to pay the lion's share of such a project," he said.
If more dollars become available, Norris would like to see his city get its share.
"Absolutely we would want additional infrastructure dollars," he noted. "If we received money for the interchange we could pay off the bonds quicker and remove the half-cent sales tax used to fund the bonds."
Before Congress can approve a $200 billion package, however, lawmakers will face a difficult task: Determining what, precisely, constitutes "infrastructure."
"For Maumelle, 'infrastructure' to us principally means roads and access to roads," Norris said.
But Boston's mayor argued that "infrastructure" also encompasses a proposed seawall that would protect the city from rising waters, Norris noted.
With a divided Congress, reaching a consensus may be a challenge, Fairfield Bay Mayor Paul Wellenberger said.
"It's going to be very difficult to actually get a bill passed on infrastructure because they want to throw in global warming, alternative energy sources. I mean, you name it, they want to throw it in that big old wad," he said.
If the $200 billion actually materializes, there'll be plenty of takers, Wellenberger said.
"Everybody could use additional infrastructure money," he said.
Infrastructure spending was a topic during the conference and also on Wednesday, when the mayors met with lawmakers.
The Arkansans had lunch at the Capitol with five Republican members of the state congressional delegation: U.S. Sen. John Boozman of Rogers and U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro, French Hill of Little Rock, Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs and Steve Womack of Rogers.
North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith portrayed last week's conference as a great learning opportunity for mayors, comparing it to the continuing education sessions that doctors and lawyers periodically attend.
Cities are often battling the same problems and dealing with the same challenges, he said.
"Homelessness, that's an issue we all have to deal with," he said. "Opioid addiction, of course, is really high on my list."
Mayors also worry about paving roads and filling potholes.
"Transportation and infrastructure is on, I think, every city's list," he said.
SundayMonday on 03/18/2019