Wednesday, February 14, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Beebe kicks off road program

Gov. Mike Beebe, who first said he would not have a highway-building program at his first legislative session, changed his mind this week and said he would offer a modest one. Its lineaments, as they were sketched by Cliff Hoofman, the new highway commissioner from North Little Rock, seem supportable. But let us reserve final judgment until the governor fills in the important details. He would take up to $100 million from surplus general revenues for road building, raise the tax on highway diesel fuel by a nickel a gallon and empower the Highway Commission to issue bonds from time to time until the year 2015. The bonds, of course, would first have to be approved by the voters at a statewide election.

The details of the bond proposition will bear the closest inspection. They must be more prudently fashioned than the bond proposal pushed by Gov. Huckabee and defeated soundly by the voters in December 2005. Hoofman gave one promising assurance: the Highway Commission would not be given open-ended authority to issue debt at its discretion into eternity, which the Huckabee proposal sought.

We would ask for one other assurance on the bonds: that the volume of bonds be large enough to make the mortgage costs worthwhile. Under the 2005 plan and the successful 1999 bond election as well, the payout term was so short that the state could have built more highways in roughly the same period if it did not have to bear the expenses of interest and the legal and underwriting fees.

Highway officials and the governor never acknowledged the waste. But the interstates were largely rebuilt as promised and the lawyers and underwriters were happy with the arrangement. The Highway Commission circulated some mountainous figures last month about the vast needs of the transportation system the next two decades and the desperate shortage of road-user taxes to meet them.

The commission and the highway lobby have put out such overblown figures for four decades. It is their job. If schools had an equal lobby, the shortage over the same period might a trillion dollars, and then what would we do? Now that key sections of the interstates that ran over the state’s shifting topsoils, which had been battered into rubble by 18-wheelers, have largely been repaired, the highway system seems to be in moderately good shape.

But there is a need for more and wider routes in fast-growing urban areas and for improved roads through the more forsaken regions of the Delta and the southern plains. Beebe’s plan should serve that need nicely. It is conditioned upon there being enough surplus money after the desperate needs for school facilities are met. Those needs may reach $500 million. (They actually far exceed that but neither the state nor local schools are in position to spend it wisely the next two years.)

Fortunately, however, the general-revenue surplus and other cash lying around in unobligated accounts at the Capitol should reach $900 million so there should be money for the highways. As much as we dislike the precedent of diverting general revenues to highways, we have a plan: Tell The Brotherhood in the Senate and their friends in the House of Representatives to forego their pork the next two years and spend it instead on highways. Generations will rise up and call them blessed.
The tax on diesel now stands at 22.5 cents a gallon, a penny-a-gallon more than the impost on gasoline. But although it is not fair on every user, that is the right tax to raise. The big trailer trucks with their 80,000-pound cargos do the damage to highways. The trucking industry apparently acknowledges it because it seems to support the Beebe program, including the diesel tax. Although highways are popular and no lawmaker has ever been punished for voting for highway taxes, the highway program is not a done deal.

Raising motor fuel taxes requires three-fourths of each house, and many legislators have sworn upon the altar of God that they will not vote for a tax of any kind. Even the most improvident vows are hard to break. But every legislator will have voted for a half-dozen or more of tax cuts. A tax increase on commercial trucks might be forgiven.