Advertising for candidates for governor and U.S. senator from Arkansas thus far focuses mostly on inane arguments such as who is closer to Nancy Pelosi and who is the biggest threat to Medicare. Arkansas would be better served if the candidates would tell us what they will do about our crumbling infrastructure, especially the highway system.
Arkansas is at a particular disadvantage with its highway system. You don’t have to drive far past any of our borders to see that our neighbors have managed to stay ahead of us in road-building and maintenance.
Yet the Arkansas Legislature needed to conduct a hearing last week to learn the state Highway and Transportation Department doesn’t have the necessary equipment and manpower to clear ice-covered highways in a hurry. Actually, the department is short on resources to do its job well on a normal day, much less when 6 inches of sleet falls overnight.
And things may get worse.
Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin already knew that when he was driving home last week from a National League of Cities committee meeting in Washington, D.C., where U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx had discussed the impending insolvency of the federal Highway Trust Fund. Then he got a call from a reporter who asked him if he had heard about the Highway 226 project.
For the past few years state and federal highway dollars have been converting Arkansas 226 into a four-lane highway connecting U.S. 67 with Jonesboro — the last link for a long-awaited four-lane corridor from Northeast Arkansas to Little Rock. The project is down to the last few miles.
But Perrin, who usually attends meetings of the Arkansas Highway Commission, had not heard state Highway Director Scott Bennett’s announcement that bids for the Cash bypass segment, scheduled for April, will not be advertised. That project was one of 10 put on hold.
Therefore, for at least a while longer Jonesboro will remain Arkansas’ largest city not connected to the rest of the state with a four-lane highway. U.S. 63 is four lanes from Jonesboro to Interstate 55 and from there on to Memphis. It’s also known as the “future I-555” because funding to complete it to interstate standards also remains on hold.
Highway officials have been promising a four-lane highway to Jonesboro since at least the early 1990s, but for many years a major share of new highway funding was channeled to Northwest Arkansas to complete Interstate 540.
Gov. Mike Beebe, an Arkansas State University graduate, pledged to work toward completing the 226 project before he left office. That wasn’t going to happen, even if the Cash bypass segment had been contracted in April. When it comes to highway monies, especially on the federal level, a governor has limited clout even on the state level, where the Highway Commission is independent.
Both major candidates to replace Beebe, Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson, went on record earlier this year as favoring the appointment of a Jonesboro citizen to the state Highway Commission. That hasn’t happened since Rodney Slater’s term expired in 1993.
But the two main candidates for the U.S. Senate, Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor and U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican, will have a better chance of making a direct impact on federal highway funding this year.
Foxx, confirmed as transportation secretary in January, testified before House and Senate subcommittees last week in support of President Obama’s fiscal year 2015 transportation budget, which includes a substantial portion of a 4-year $302 billion transportation reauthorization measure.
Foxx has warned that the Highway Trust Fund will be “bouncing checks” starting this summer unless Congress passes a funding solution. That’s why Arkansas highway officials decided to delay the April bidding process. Perrin told a reporter that if the projects were bid and the Federal Highway Administration didn’t provide reimbursement, the state department could be down to $6 million to operate statewide for the rest of the year.
That doesn’t count money available for some projects being financed under the state’s $1 billion interstate repair program, approved by voters in 2011. That money can be spent only on interstate highway projects. A temporary half-cent sales tax approved by voters the next year was designated for specific projects, and 30 percent is shared with cities and counties.
Arkansas depends heavily on federal highway dollars, and that source of funding is in danger.
While the 226 project primarily affects Northeast Arkansas, most of the other projects put on hold are in other parts of the state. And if the federal Trust Fund dries up, many more highway projects will be put on hold, and Arkansas will fall further behind. That’s why the candidates for the Senate need to tell us what they’d do to fix it.
• • •
Roy Ockert, a resident of Jonesboro, is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.