LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Highway Commission on Wednesday asked state Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett to contact Arkansas congressional candidates and ask what they would do to make highway funding sustainable.
The commission also heard an update on Interstate 49 and other future interstate corridors and received a report advising against adding a toll lane to part of Interstate 40.
The U.S. House voted last week to approve adding $10.8 billion to the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run dry in August without congressional action. The Senate has not yet voted on the measure. AHTD Director Scott Bennett has put 15 Arkansas highway projects with a combined cost of $69.6 million on hold because of concerns that federal funding will not be available.
Speaking at the state Highway Commission’s regular July meeting Wednesday, Bennett said Arkansas would get about $138 million of the $10.8 billion. He said the measure would be only a short-term fix.
“This is the amount of revenue that we really need to meet the trust fund’s obligations for the remainder of calendar year 2014 and into 2015. We don’t really know what’s going to happen after that,” he said.
Commissioner Dick Trammel noted that congressional elections are coming up this year.
“I’d like to know what these candidates, what their ideas are,” he said.
The commissioners asked Bennett to send a letter to the all the congressional candidates, including incumbents and challengers, that would lay out concerns about long-term highway funding and ask for the candidates’ ideas. They also asked Bennett to invite the candidates to address the commission in a special meeting.
Also Wednesday, Bennett told the commission that Missouri voters will decide Aug. 5 on a proposed three-fourths cent sales tax increase to fund highway projects. Included in those projects would be completion of Missouri’s portion of the Bella Vista Bypass, which is to link Arkansas and Missouri and become part of the I-49 corridor.
The bypass cannot be designated as part of I-49 until both the Arkansas and Missouri portions of it are completed as four-lane highways that meet interstate standards. Completing Arkansas’ portion of the bypass would cost $50 million, Bennett said.
“That’s the last gap between I-40 and Alma and Kansas City, so if Missouri’s tax passes Aug. 5 … we need to be prepared to consider how we come up with that $50 million to complete this interstate segment,” he said.
Completion of the entire Arkansas stretch of I-49 reaching across the western side of the state between Missouri and Louisiana would cost $2.7 billion, Bennett said.
He also told the commission that completing Arkansas’ portion of I-69 in southeastern Arkansas would cost $3.5 billion and that completing the state’s portion of I-555 in northeastern Arkansas would cost $50 million.
The commission also accepted but took no action on a report on a study it commissioned on the feasibility of adding a toll lane to I-40 between North Little Rock and West Memphis, to pay for widening the highway. Current federal law allows states to charge tolls only on lanes that they add to interstate highways, not on existing lanes.
The study by consulting firm Jacobs Engineering found that adding a third lane to the highway and charging a toll just on that lane would not be cost-effective.