Legislators are taking time out from their “private option” session this week to conduct a hearing on why parts of interstate highways 40 and 55 in eastern Arkansas got jammed for three days after a March 2 winter ice storm.
Gov. Mike Beebe and others have criticized the storm response by the state Highway and Transportation Department, saying it was too slow in dispatching crews to clear those critical highways. Beebe called out the National Guard to help stranded motorists on I-55 north of West Memphis to the Missouri state line and on I-40 near Forrest City.
Officials from the Highway Department and the Arkansas State Police have been asked to attend the hearing, which begins Tuesday morning. Coincidentally, the state Highway Commission will be meeting in Little Rock Tuesday and Wednesday.
Beebe conceded that the March 2 storm, which dumped 4 to 6 inches of sleet on parts of northern and eastern Arkansas, was troublesome, but he said the Highway Department didn’t dispatch crews from other parts of the state quickly enough.
We’re all tired of this long, hard winter and probably more than a little irritable. I spent part of Sunday afternoon clearing ice from the door to my garage, and today the melting continues in shady parts of my yard. Spring can’t come too soon.
The state Highway Department, though, is in some trouble because the interstate ice jams brought Arkansas some unwanted national publicity. We’ve all seen aerial photos and videos showing traffic backed up for miles on I-40 or I-55.
One of the things you might have noticed is that almost every vehicle in those long lines was an 18-wheeler. People who didn’t have to travel mostly heeded the cautions about driving on that stuff. Trucking companies, on the other hand, want their drivers to keep their loads moving.
Now some are threatening to reroute through other states that seem to be able to handle winter weather better. Most of us wouldn’t mind that a bit. The big trucks tend to dominate our interstate highways on normal days, making travel more hazardous and uncomfortable for smaller vehicles. While their passage through the state may boost the economy a little, the semis with their heavy loads also tear up the highways.
Arkansas had a similar storm Dec. 5-6, when a mix of freezing rain and snow hit the northwestern corner of the state especially hard. Afterward, state Highway Director Scott Bennett said his department’s ice and snow removal was inadequate, though not for lack of effort by highway crews.
Bennett said the state had previously bought new equipment and also conferred with Missouri officials about their winter response practices but nonetheless got mixed results. One question for legislators is what we learned from that experience and why it didn’t help.
One of the things they surely will find is that Arkansas doesn’t have the resources or know-how to deal with this kind of storm. We’re accustomed to milder winters in which a 3- or 4-inch snowfall can easily be cleared and wouldn’t last long anyway. This winter we’ve been hammered by a combination of low temperatures and repeated ice storms, both of which have lingered longer than usual.
To prepare better for this kind of winter is going to cost more than we’re willing to spend.
Some lawmakers may also use the opportunity to advocate a change in the political structure of the Highway Department and its governing commission.
Under Amendment 42, also known as the Mack-Blackwell Amendment, the Highway Commission is independent from state government. The governor appoints the five commission members, each to a 10-year term, then has little authority over them. The Legislature has some power to raise money for highway construction and maintenance but can’t tell the commission where to spend it.
Passage of that law in 1952 ended many years of highway fund corruption and in-fighting for control of the highway department. While we sometimes quibble over where highway dollars are spent, we can’t argue with the results. A poor state with lots of rural roads, we’ve come a long way since 1952.
Weakening Amendment 42 would be a big mistake.
But our highway officials must be sensitive to public opinion because they still depend on us for funding, and the public perception is that they haven’t handled winter very well this year. Now let’s find out why and how we can improve.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.