Friday, July 27, 2012

TOP STORY >> Road work needs millions

Leader staff writer

Arkansas will have about $4 billion for highway construction and repairs over the next 10 years—that’s the good news.

The bad news, according to Scott Bennett, the state Highway Department director, is that the state will have $24 billion worth of construction and repair needs during that same time period, including $180 million needed to widen Hwy. 67/167.

“It’s a big, big job ahead of us,” the director told about 100 area officials and area residents Tuesday night at the Arkansas Highway Commission appreciation banquet at the Cabot National Guard Armory.

Bennett and Highway Commission Chairman R. Madison Murphy, who spoke later in the evening, both touted the proposed half-cent sales tax as a good stopgap measure.

The tax is on the November ballot.

Bennett said part of the problem is that Arkansas has the 12th largest highway system in the United States with about 16,000 miles of roadway under its jurisdiction, but is 43rd in revenue per mile.

He said plans are set to widen Hwy. 67/167 to six lanes from Jacksonville through Cabot, but funding makes it a slow go. He said the work includes first replacing the bridges in Jacksonville, then widening the highway from Jacksonville to the south end of Cabot, then through Cabot to the north end.

He said the work from Jacksonville to the southern edge of Cabot would cost about $100 million. To go through the northern end of Cabot will be another $80 million.

“At our normal rate of funding, the project will take 40 years,” Bennett said.

Bennett stressed the importance of Cabot, and what is good for Cabot is good for the region, and making the highway six lanes is good for everyone.”

Bennett explained that the half-cent sales tax would be in effect for only 10 years, but would raise $1.8 billion. “That’s a good shot in the arm” he said, adding it would give the Highway Department flexibility on projects. “Again, it’s not the answer. It’s only temporary, but it is a good shot in the arm.”

Murphy told the crowd that he was familiar with the old adage that you can’t please everyone all the time. “But when I became chairman, I found out you can have all the people mad at you all the time. Our funding is so limited that we have to turn down or delay four out of five projects. That upsets lots of people,” he explained.

Murphy said the Highway Department is funded by a per-gallon tax system that worked fine in the ’50s, ’60s and even the ’70s, but is now antiquated and static. “Our costs are up, by our income is declining,” he told the audience, which included the mayors of Cabot and Jacksonville plus county and state officials, including Sen. Eddie Jo Williams.

Murphy explained that the Highway Department would be able to stretch the money from the tax if it is passed. “This department has the second best administration cost per mile in the country. When it gets its hands on a dollar, it does a good job with it,” the commission chairman said.

Murphy said there were a number of reasons to vote for the tax proposal on the November ballot. First, it exempts motor fuel, groceries and medicines. Secondly, it clearly identifies how the money is going to be used and where the money goes. And lastly, it creates or supports 40,000 jobs, Murphy said. Plus Lonoke County’s share of the tax works out to about $13.5 million over the next 10 years, he added.

“It’s a real chance to invest in ourselves. If we don’t, who will?” he asked the crowd.

He then reminded everyone that when businesses and industries come looking, they always want to know about the quality of education, infrastructure and tax rates.

“It’s schools, roads, low tax rates and things to do. No one ever asks how the prisons are,” he said.