LITTLE ROCK — Orange barrels, flashing signs, lane detours and slow traffic are still a year away, but Arkansas highway officials are already planning how to spend nearly $2 billion over the next decade building and repairing roads across the state.
The money will come from a bond issue backed by a 10-year, half-cent sales tax increase in a constitutional amendment that voters approved 58 percent to 42 percent in Tuesday’s general election to finance construction of a four-lane highway system connecting all corners of the state.
County roads and city streets also will get makeovers under a program co-billed as a major state transportation overhaul and economic development bonanza. Officials say construction will create 40,000 jobs.
The tax increase won’t go into effect until July 1. The planning has already begun.
“There is obviously going to be a lot of background work now,” said Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.
The day after the election, highway officials began advertising for an outside engineering management firm to oversee projects under the highway program. The search also began for a financial adviser for the project, as well as bond counsel to help with financing.
Bennett said the engineering management firm is needed because the department already has ongoing highway and bridge projects, and an interstate rehabilitation program, funded by a $575 million bond renewal program approved by voters in 2011, is about to start.
“Obviously the consultants are going to have to be able to do a lot of the design and probably construction inspection, so we’re going to hire a consultant firm that really manages all of those consultants and all of those aspects of the program so they can just package everything up and give it to us for approval so we can let a contract and get it done,” Bennett said.
The tax hike will raise the state sales tax to 6.5 percent, but won’t affect groceries, medicine, gasoline or diesel fuel.
Bennett said the goal is to begin letting bids late next summer and hopefully have some projects be under way late next year.
“Some of them are pretty big projects and we’ll have some public hearings going on to let people know what’s coming up and when it’s coming,” he said. “The easy part is over. Now the hard part and the fun begins.”
Some of the larger and more expensive projects planned include replacing the Interstate 30 bridge over the Arkansas River; widening I-540 to six lanes from Fayetteville to Bentonville; completion of the initial two lanes of the future four-lane Bella Vista bypass; widening I-40 to six lanes from Little Rock to Conway, and completion of the widening to four lane projects on U.S. Highway 167 between I-530 and El Dorado and U.S. Highway 425 from Hamburg to the Louisiana line.
Bennett said officials also plan to update the department’s website with project information.
“It’s a big deal for us,” said Guy Washburn, executive director of the Arkansas Asphalt Pavement Association. “We have a tremendous amount of hourly employees, there are truck drivers, people that are week-to-week folks that really need to get their hours in and this, obviously, is an opportunity for those folks to work longer in the season.”
Washburn said the asphalt pavement association has about 100 member businesses and that the $1.8 billion highway program “is a real shot in the arm that is going to help a lot of the companies that have been struggling.”
Randy Zook, director the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce-Associated Industries of Arkansas and a member of Move Arkansas Forward, the group that campaigned for the amendment, said passage last week “is a big, bold investment in Arkansas’ future and it’s going to improve lots of things for lots of people.”
Mark Lamberth, owner of Atlas Asphalt Inc. in Batesville, said the highway program will benefit the entire state.
“As co-chairman of Move Arkansas Forward, I was elated,” Lamberth said. “We’re talking about $1.3 billion in improvements to Arkansas roads and that certainly means the support of over 40,000 Arkansas jobs. That will certainly create some opportunities for economic development.
“One of the things we need to remember is that we keep the 70-15-15 formula … so every city, every county in this state is going to get a piece of the pie,” he said.
Under the amendment, the highway department will receive 70 percent of proceeds — about $160 million annually — for state projects for the 10-year-life of the tax. Cities and counties will split the remaining 30 percent, or about $35 million annually.
The amendment also creates a permanent state-aid street fund, similar to the existing state-aid county fund, that cities will be able to tap for street projects. One penny of the existing per-gallon fuels tax, worth about $20 million a year, would go to that fund.
“I know the mayors of the cities in Arkansas will be very pleased,” Lamberth said. “That’s a very successful program the highway department partners with the counties on that provides some much needed improvement for county roads that qualify all across the state.”