Director: State has highway needs beyond bond programs


LITTLE ROCK — As Arkansas highway officials finalize a $1.8 billion slate of road projects to be funded by a higher state sales tax, the state highway director said Thursday the highway department will need another $200 million a year over the next decade to maintain existing roadways.

A schedule of highway projects funded by a temporary half-cent state sales tax increase should be completed by the end of the month, Highway Director Scott Bennett told legislators. Voters approved the 10-year tax hike to finance a $1.8 billion bond issue that will fund construction of a system of four-lane highways connecting all parts of the state.

The program is in addition to a $575 million bond program approved by voters in 2011 for interstate improvements.

Still, maintaining existing state highways will cost another $200 million annually, Bennett said.

“That’s just to keep things from getting worse,” he told lawmakers during a joint meeting of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs and the House Committee on Public Transportation.

Bennett briefed lawmakers on both bond programs Thursday.

The road program funded by the sales tax increase will include about 30 projects and will focus on creating a four-lane grid and adding capacity to existing four-lane highways. Those projects will cover about 200 miles of roads, he said.

Some of the larger and more expensive projects planned include widening Interstate 540 to six lanes from Fayetteville north to Bentonville; widening Arkansas 18 from Jonesboro east to I-55; expanding U.S. 412 to four lanes between Walnut Ridge and Paragould; widening U.S. 67-167 between Jacksonville and Cabot; widening I-40 from Little Rock to Conway; replacing the I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River; and widening U.S. 70 from I-30 to Hot Springs.

Bennett said the first project should be let for bids later this year. Highway officials would not say Thursday which project would be first but said the schedule is expected to be presented to the Arkansas Highway Commission on Wednesday.

Bennett said the half-cent sales tax will generate about $238 million annually, with 70 percent — about $160 million — going to the state Highway and Transportation Department with cities and counties splitting the remaining 30 percent.

“There are a lot of important, really costly projects that we’ll be able to take care of in the near term instead of spreading those things out over the next several years,” the highway director said. “This is in addition to all the work we’ll have going on along the interstates.”

Bennett said eight projects in the interstate rehabilitation program, totaling about $197 million, are already under way and another 12 projects are expected to be let for bids over the next year.

Despite the more than $2 billion in projects under the two bond programs, Bennett told lawmakers the state still will need $20 billion to address existing highway needs over the next 10 years to years at a time when the main highway funding source, motor fuel taxes, continues to be flat.

He said revenue from motor fuel taxes was down about $30 million last year, while driving in the state continued to rise. He attributed the revenue loss to motorists driving more fuel-efficient vehicles. Also, he said, the federal Highway Trust Fund, the revenue source for many state road and bridge projects, is nearly depleted.

“If we don’t have another $200 million a year over the next 10 years, then in 10 years there will more congestion out there, there will be more roads that in poor condition, there will be more bridges that will be in poor condition,” Bennett told reporters after the meeting.

Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, suggested after the meeting that the Legislature reconsider he proposal this year to divert tax revenue from the sale of new and used cars, auto parts and services to highway construction needs. The measure, which he said would have diverted about $2.3 billion to highways over a 10-year period, was opposed by Gov. Mike Beebe and failed to get out of the House Transportation Committee.

Barnett, who is term limited, said some House members who mostly likely will be back in 2015, have said they would consider bring the proposal back up for discussion.

“We’re trying to keep all the conversations alive for the possibility of future revenue,” Barnett, a former state highway commissioner, told reporters, adding that the $200 million which Bennett said is needed “is very real and sometimes people that don’t study, or don’t keep up with transportation issues in the state don’t realize how real it really is.”