Arkansas puts five more highway projects on hold


WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday approved adding $10.8 billion to the Federal Highway Trust Fund to keep it solvent through next May amid growing concerns from states over how road and bridge projects would be financed.

Arkansas Highways and Transportation Director Scott Bennett has put the brakes on 15 projects worth an estimated $69.6 million — up from 10 projects that were sidelined in March.

In a letter to members of the state’s congressional delegation, Bennett said the state was withdrawing five additional projects from a July 23 bid letting over concerns that federal money would not be available to pay contractors.

The five projects worth an estimated $7.4 million are in Sevier, Howard, Benton, Greene and White counties. The Benton County project would have been to widen Interstate 49 from New Hope Road to Arkansas Highway 102.

“We encourage you and Congress to address this impending revenue crisis and to consider all available options to stabilize and grow the Federal Highway Trust Fund,” Bennett wrote at the end of June.

The current multi-year federal transportation legislation will expire in September. Congress has failed to strike a deal on funding a new six-year, $100 billion comprehensive plan. With time running out, they appear instead headed to approving a short-term fix.

The House voted 367-55 for a bill that would provide $10.8 billion in funding through next May. Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Steve Womack, R-Rogers, voted in favor.

Club for Growth and Heritage Action urged lawmakers to oppose the short-term solution because they say it is paid for through accounting gimmicks, revenue increases and budget transfers.

Most of the House bill would be funded from additional corporate tax revenues that would come by allowing corporations to boost profits by delaying payments into their pension funds. It would also transfer money from the leaking underground storage tank fund and from customs fees.

Womack said Tuesday morning it is vital for Congress not allow the highway trust fund to run dry even if it means turning to a less-than-desirable short-term solution.

“I’m very concerned about the impact on Arkansas,” Womack said in an interview before the vote. “So, it may not be the most ideal method of a short-term patch — leaking underground tanks and the pension smoothing and what have you — but we are out of time and we’ve got to put some certainty back in.”

Womack said that the House bill is the best option available for a short-term fix but that Congress needs to make hard decisions about how it intends to pay for infrastructure projects over the long run.

“There is an answer to that question but I don’t know what that is yet,” he said.

Crawford spoke on the House floor in favor of the bill, noting the challenges that the Arkansas Highway Department has faced in planning construction projects with no certainty of federal assistance.

Griffin issued a statement after the vote saying it represented a “positive short-term fix” but that a long-term solution needs to be addressed to ensure highways, roads and bridges are “modernized and safe.”

Cotton also called for a long-term solution that would include eliminating “big-city projects that don’t benefit Arkansas.”

“The highway program is running out of money because liberal politicians waste too much on projects like streetcars in Charlotte, instead of the roads and bridges needed in places like Arkansas,” Cotton said.

The highway trust fund was established in 1956 and funded largely through federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. The tax rates — 18.4 cents per gallon of gas and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel — have not changed since 1993.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the highway trust fund would run short of funds as early as August without Congressional action. Because of that uncertainty, Bennett said that the Arkansas highway department determined it would not have adequate state funds to ensure full payments to contractors if it executed all the contracts that were scheduled for April, June and July lettings. The July letting takes place next week.

Bennett estimated that delaying the 15 projects in Arkansas would cost an estimated 900 jobs in the state that would otherwise have been created or maintained because of the additional construction work.

The $62,234,000 in projects postponed in March:

- Chicot County – Rehabilitate 4.3 miles of U.S. Highway 165

- Conway County – Traffic signal upgrades on State Highways 9 and 9B in Morrilton

- Craighead County – Base and surfacing of State Highway 226 bypass in Cash

- Franklin County - Connect Hillbilly Lane to State Highway 23 in Mulberry

- Independence County – Widen 5.0 miles of U.S. Highway 167

- Pulaski County – Replace U.S. Highway 70 (Roosevelt Road) bridge in Little Rock

- Pulaski County – Replace Remount Road bridge in North Little Rock

- Lawrence County – Widen 1.5 miles of U.S. Highway 63

- Garland County – Replace bridge County Road 79

- Various – Bridge painting on U.S. highways 67, 79 and 82 and state highways 7 and 84

Five more added now bringing the total to $69,622,000:

- Sevier County – Signal rehabilitation on U.S. Highway 70 and state highways 41 and 329

- Howard County – Milling and inlay for U.S. Highway 371 and State Highway 980

- Benton County – Widen Interstate 49 from New Hope Rd to State Highway 102

- Greene County – Reconstruction on State Highway 351

- White County – Replace bridge over Glaise Creek on Velvet Ridge Road