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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Traffic flows along Interstate 630 in Little Rock on Jan. 4, as construction crews work on a widening project. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

Officials with the Arkansas Department of Transportation are already being asked how they will spend an extra $300 million a year it stands to receive through Gov. Asa Hutchinson's highway plan that the General Assembly approved in its recently completed regular meeting, the agency's top official said.

That figure includes nearly $100 million in increases to fuel taxes and some vehicle registration fees approved by legislators during the session and another $205 million if voters go along with lawmakers and approve a proposed constitutional amendment next year that would make permanent the half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2012. Otherwise, it is scheduled to sunset in 2023.

In March, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a separate highway funding bill into law as Act 416, which will impose a wholesale sales tax on gas and diesel fuel and raise electric and hybrid vehicle registration fees, effective Oct. 1, and transfer at least $35 million a year in casino revenue and/or other funds to the highway department.

The fuel tax increases are the equivalent of adding 3 cents to the tax on a gallon of gas, which is set at 21.5 cents a gallon, and adding 6 cents to the tax on a gallon of diesel, which is 22.5 cents a gallon.

State officials project Act 416 will raise about $95 million for the department to spend on highways and about $13 million more a year each for cities and counties.

"We're already being asked at presentations when we say this is a possibility, 'What are we going to do with the money?'" Scott Bennett, the department's director, said at a meeting of the Arkansas Highway Commission last week. "I don't think we can keep saying, 'We're working on it, we're working on it.' I think we need to have a plan."

That plan already is taking shape. Under an option the commission will consider at least one special meeting, the department would put the additional money into the overall department budget and fashion a $7.4 billion spending program over 10 years beginning in 2024, $3 billion of which would be available if voters approve the proposed amendment in 2020.

Most of the money -- $3.8 billion -- would go to heavy maintenance, which the department calls pavement preservation. The department recently has shifted emphasis of its regular road construction money to relatively inexpensive overlays of new asphalt to extend the life of the road surface before a more expensive reconstruction job is necessary.

The pavement preservation piece would improve 9,000 miles to 11,000 miles of highways across the state. Eighty percent of the miles would be on what is called the Arkansas Primary Highway Network. The 7,900 miles on the network constitute about half of the 16,000 miles on the state system, but carry 90 percent of the traffic.

Twenty percent of the $3.8 billion would go to roads off the network, which the department has struggled to maintain in recent years.

Under the plan, the department also would devote $1.1 billion to bridge replacement and preservation; $1 billion to interstate maintenance; $1 billion to capital projects and congestion relief, such as widening projects; and $500,000 to targeted safety improvements.

Bennett said those numbers could shift if the commission wanted to put more money into capital projects and have a mini-version of the Connecting Arkansas Program, which is the $1.8 billion construction program that focused on regionally significant projects. It is largely financed by the existing half-percent sales tax, which voters approved in 2012. Such a shift would leave less money for pavement preservation under an alternative option.

Bennett and the commission say they will work on that plan in the next month, mindful of the guidance provided by Hutchinson both in his campaign for re-election last fall and during the legislative session, where he pushed for and helped pass the highway legislation.

"What the governor presented was a 10-year program," Bennett said. "I think he's looking for, 'Is that the right option? Is there another option?' Basically, the other option is to have another round of the Connecting Arkansas Program.

"Those questions are going to have to be answered before we go forward with a program. None of that has been presented to the governor."

The five commission members also need to have input, Bennett said.

That prompted commission Chairman Tom Schueck of Little Rock to ask: "Is this our program or is it the governor's program?"

"It is your program, but I believe it is going to have to be coordinated with the governor," Bennett responded. "The governor got out in front. He promoted this as part of his re-election campaign. He got out in front and helped this pass [in the Legislature].

"I think he's going to have to be on board and out front and campaigning for it also."

In a separate statement, Hutchinson said a committee backing the proposed amendment likely will be formed later this year.

"There will be a committee established in support of the amendment," he said. "It's premature to know exactly how that will be constituted, but I expect that will take place later this year. There will certainly be an active campaign to support that extension, and I will lend my support to it."

In the meantime, at the urging of commission members Alec Farmer of Jonesboro and Keith Gibson of Fort Smith, the commission will hold a work session to, in Gibson's words, "work through" the plans. Schueck agreed.

"Somewhere in the next month, before the next meeting, we have a work session to narrow that down as to which option we think is best for us," he said. "The next step is to sell it to the governor or give it to the governor and see if he approves and if he does and we do, then we're on our way."

Business on 05/06/2019

Print Headline: Arkansas Department of Transportation studies how to spend extra $300M a year

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Comments

  • MBAIV
    May 6, 2019 at 6:54 a.m.

    I wonder.... Is ARDOT holding current repairs hostage to lobby for the tax vote? It already takes forever for vital safety items to get repaired after a crash. Guardrails, cable barriers and such go for weeks, sometimes months, with an orange barrel or cone as a replacement instead of being a priority fix.
    .
    I notice coming into LR that parts of Cantrell (Highway 10) are in such poor shape that a gravel road would be smoother. I imagine that there are other areas around the state as well. Is ARDOT withholding patching or an overlay to convince us to vote for more money?
    .
    The argument is that more money is needed for these repairs. But the lack of quick safety repairs and patching on roads that handle tens of thousands of vehicles makes me wonder about the validity of decisions made for existing money.

  • Knuckleball1
    May 6, 2019 at 9 a.m.

    I have a suggestion, as I drive the roads of Arkansas, I see new roads being built on sand no gravel insight or very little. 6 months after the road is redone, it is a lot of the time worst that it was before. I am not sure who is in charge of design but maybe they need to go back to the old ways of building roads. Many of the old road beds that were built by early versions of a dozer or by hand with horses and mules actually have less problems than many of the new roads. I am not saying they need to go back to Horses and Mules but the Old guys work ethic was a lot better than today. Years ago they tried to build something that would last. Today, it is hurry up and get it done.
    ......................

    2 good examples: Drive down AR-530 from Pine Bluff to Star City, this has to be one of the roughest roads in the state and it is falling apart. The Other is the Same AR-530 between AR-35 and US-270 in Drew County. This road has so many dips and humps that you think that you are on a Carnival Ride.
    ....................

    There are many other newly paved roads that on a sunny day looked great until it rains and the ruts fill with water which makes them very dangerous. The new paving job did not last 6 months concerning the ruts made by the big trucks.
    .......................

    There are actually Gravel Roads maintained by the Timber Companies that you can drive at decent speeds that are very smooth. Other than the dust and loose gravel many are better than the State Highways in the area.

    ...................

    Most of the bridges in the State need to be replaced that would be a good place to start.

  • outinthesticks
    May 6, 2019 at 9:03 a.m.

    "Twenty percent of the $3.8 billion would go to roads off the network, which the department has struggled to maintain in recent years."
    `
    No kidding, Sherlock. Take any of the back byways of Arkansas and be prepared to rebuild your suspension. The only focus ARDOT seems to have is on building new roads where they think someone might lose 5 minutes in traffic. Agriculture is the biggest industry in this state, yet the roads that service it have been neglected for years. MBAIV, I think you are correct in saying that ARDOT's policy was to focus on road building rather than road maintenance, choosing to hold the latter hostage until the people agree to higher taxes.

  • theaverageman
    May 6, 2019 at 9:09 a.m.

    The problem I have with this pavement preservation is that at least half of it is going to roads that don't need to be fixed, while roads and bridges that are much older are in need of repairs take a backseat.

    One must wonder when was the last time Interstate 430 was repaved in West Little Rock? Interstate 40 from Highway 67 to Highway 161 in North Little Rock is full of potholes but they want to mess with Highway 67 in North Little Rock/Sherwood area which is perfectly fine, which is a perfect example of why I consider this pavement preservation a waste of my taxpayer money. Why not decommission these dead in state highways into county roads because I don't see no purpose for them.

    Focus also in completing Interstates 49 and 69 because Interstate 49 is already connected to Shreveport and soon all the way to Kansas City which means we need to fill in the gap instead of wasting money on making I-30 ten plus lanes in downtown Little Rock. If they want better roads then either look at getting better pavement, have truckers pay for the damage or look for new workers who can actually repave a road right. What we need from ARDOT is less studies/engineering and more common sense and maybe we can get ahead but it appears ARDOT does not know how to get their own ducks in a row.

    So until ARDOT can get their stuff together I'll be voting NO in any highway tax increase.

  • MikeCrum
    May 6, 2019 at 10:53 a.m.

    I live on one of the oldest roads in Arkansas. It was the first road taken in under the Max Blackwell act. The first pavement was 1965. That was only on the first 4 -6 miles. Rest of the 10 + miles has had only chip and seal the last of that was around 1975. Most of the roads in Southeast Arkansas are some of the worst in the state. ARDOT has written off this part of the state. We voted for the last tax increase only to see it go to big projects in Little Rock or Northwest Arkansas mostly so drivers could leave home for work 5 minutes earlier. It's a no vote for me on the extension of the tax.

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    May 6, 2019 at 11:14 a.m.

    WHATEVER YOU DO. PLEASE KEEP KILLING POOR ARKANSANS
    POOR PEOPLE DESERVE TO DIE.
    STEAL THEIR MONEY AND MAKE A ROAD.

  • ZeebronZ
    May 7, 2019 at midnight

    Why is there any debate or question? As bad as the roads are? And how about the signage coming north into the Little Rock are on the freeways? At night the signs can't be read! Christ's sake! Get off the pot!

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