Supporters say road tax would fund most needed projects


LITTLE ROCK — Many of the projects on a newly released list of the state’s most needed road improvements would be completed within a decade if voters approve a proposed temporary half-cent sales tax increase to fund a $1.8 billion highway construction program, supporters said Tuesday.

The proposal is encompassed in Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that appears on the ballot for Tuesday’s general election. Early voting began Oct. 22 and ends Monday.

On Tuesday, a report identifying the 40 transportation projects most needed to support Arkansas’ economic growth was released by The Road Information Program, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit transportation research group funded by insurance groups and other businesses involved with highway construction.

“Many of these projects, or actually all of them listed, will or could be completed within the next 10 years if Issue 1 passes,” state Highway Director Scott Bennett said.

Construction under the bond program would focus primarily on creating a statewide four-lane grid and adding capacity to existing four-lane highways.

Some of the larger and more expensive projects planned include widening Interstate 540 to six lanes from Fayetteville to the Missouri border; 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 remaining projects on the TRIP list are under way or on the drawing board and funded through the state’s regular funding system, the statewide transportation improvement program and the interstate rehabilitation program reauthorized by voters last year.

Supporters have said the $1.8 billion bond program would generate more than 40,000 jobs in the state, and that the sales tax increase would not affect groceries, medicines or gasoline.

“Investing in these transportation projects will improve the both short term and long term economic growth and quality of life here in Arkansas,” TRIP spokeswoman Carolyn Bonifas said Tuesday at a news conference at the offices of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas.

Bonifas said TRIP routinely provides studies and reports to states across the nation, and that the report released Tuesday was designed to educate the public on the state’s need for highway construction projects.

“We repeatedly hear from Washington that we can’t rely on Washington to fund highway improvements in Arkansas,” Bennett said, adding that approval of Issue 1 next week would allow the state to keep investing in its own highway needs.

He said the current highway funding system, which depends on increasingly flat fuel tax revenues, is inadequate, and inflation has impeded the state’s ability to pay for all the projects needed.

“Arkansas has many more road and bridge needs than it has dollars to put towards maintenance repair or replacement,” said Mark Lamberth, chairman of Move Arkansas Forward, the state chamber-led group pushing the highway program. “A healthy transportation system is vital to the growth of the state’s economic vitality, but the state needs adequate funding to ensure that we move in the right direction.”

The proposal has no apparent organized opposition.