Friday, September 25, 2015

TOP STORY >> Officials don’t want cuts for county roads

Leader senior staff writer

A current proposal to raise state Highway Department revenues at the expense of cities, counties and the state general fund has rankled county judges and their association.

Arkansas Good Roads Foundation director Craig Douglass has sent the Governor’s Task Force on Highway Funding — of which he is a member — a proposal that would eventually raise about $194 million a year for highways through a series of measures that, if fully implemented, would diminish general state revenues by $427 million a years and cut state aid for county roads.

Included in the plan is a $198 million a year tax cut for corporations proposed by state Rep. Andy Davis (R-West Little Rock). The tax cut provides no additional revenue for highways — it’s just money out of the state’s general fund, which funds state departments and operations.

Douglass said Davis’ tax cut isn’t really part of his recommendations, but, in fact, it’s number four of the 12 steps listed on his Sept. 15 proposal.


Among the more controversial recommendations, besides the tax cut for corporations, are ones that would transfer thousands of miles of existing roads to the cities and counties for maintenance, while reducing the amount of state turnback tax money those entities currently depend on for road maintenance.

That means the already cash-strapped counties would have the responsibility to patch, repair, overlay, maintain, maintain signs, mow rights of way and clean ditchesand culverts on roads the state would be abandoning.

In Arkansas, county judges are over county roads and bridges.

“There will be 75 counties opposing that,” said Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin. That’s out of 75 counties.

“It would create an extreme burden on the county to pick up additional roads to maintain and keep up to standards,” Erwin said. “We currently have 850 miles of paved road and 250 miles of gravel.”

That’s at least 1,750 miles of ditches to mow and clean.

Lonoke County’s current road and bridge budget is about $5 million a year.


“We have an infrastructure crises in this country,” said Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde. “There’s not enough funding for national, state, county and city bridges and roads. I have concern that some folk may have thought that because of the crises on the state level that we should increase crises to cities and counties. That’s just bad logic.”

The Pulaski County road and bridge budget is $15 million, and it’s already not enough, he said.

The county is looking at rebuilding six bridges that the state has found to be out of compliance.

“They want to reduce city and county turnback,” said Hyde, “sacrifice cities and counties for benefits of state.”

Pulaski County has to maintain 800 miles of county-owned road.

Hyde said he’d heard they might want to make county roads of state Hwy. 10, state Hwy. 70, JFK Boulevard/state Hwy. 107 and state Hwy. 367.

Chris Villines, Association of Arkansas Counties executive director, said, “We can barely handle the 70,000 miles we currently have.

“Do we migrate funding to only those major highways that carry a great load of out-of-state travelers and commercial haulers, and in doing so forsake the roads that carry our children in school buses and crops to market?” Villines asked.


Among the recommendations from the Good Roads group is:

• Increase fuel tax by 10 cents a gallon, phased out over perhaps seven years.

• Transfer sales tax from new and used vehicle sales from general revenue to highway funds over seven years.

• Increase registration and user fees for electric, natural gas and hybrid vehicles, characterized as a fairness measure.

• Transfer of about $4 million a year in diesel taxes from general to the highway fund.

• Transfer 15 percent of fuel tax revenues from the road and bridge departments of cities and counties to city and county aid funds, administered by the state and monitored by state Bureau of Legislative Audit.

• Give corporations and individuals a $198 million a year tax break, at the expense of state government and state services.

Highway Department officials say they need an additional $110 million a year just to pay the state’s required match on anticipated funds from the federal Highway Trust Fund, according to Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie. And, because the cities and counties get a total of 30 percent of state highway revenues, it would take about $143 million for the state to net that.


“The Highway Department needs about $1.6 billion a year if it were to do everything it has promised,” McKenzie said.

Good Roads Foundation, the Asphalt Pavers Association and the Truckers Association — aka the road gang — all have a seat at the table on the governor’s task force, and each is expected to make its own recommendations to the task force.

McKenzie, who was on Gov. Beebe’s Blue Ribbon Highway Funding Commission a few years ago, said he suspects the working group will forward all recommendations to the governor, and he would pick and choose a la carte.

Meanwhile, a fairly flat highway bill is stuck in Congress with little hope of passage before the existing bill — a continuing resolution — expires at the end of October.