By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
On Interstate 40 near Brinkley a couple of weeks ago, I drove past a sign reading something like, “Caution: pothole ahead.” I can’t recall ever before seeing a road sign like that on an interstate, but it was certainly accurate. Actually, “crater” would have been a better word.
These roads are a mess. They may stay that way for a while.
The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department this week announced it was suspending 50 planned overlay projects. In fact, it has cancelled its entire $50 million annual overlay program, which extends the life of highways. According to the Highway Department, an overlay project costs $200,000 a mile. Reconstructing a highway costs $1.5 million a mile.
The department made this decision because it doesn’t have money for the overlays and doesn’t know when it will. Highway programs are funded mostly through federal and state motor fuels taxes, plus, since 2008, money shifted from the overall federal budget (with part of that bill handed to our kids and grandkids). Seventy percent of Arkansas’ highway construction money comes from the federal government. To collect it, Arkansas bills the government weekly for projects it’s doing.
Unfortunately, the department can’t be sure the government will pay up. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which nearly ran out of money last year until Congress replenished it with one-year gimmicks, will run out of money again May 31. That’s two months from now.
The problem is that highways are funded mostly through a declining source of revenue. The gas tax has not changed since 1993 at the federal level and since 2001 at the state level. Cars use less gas than they did back then, so drivers buy fewer gallons and therefore pay fewer taxes per mile. Meanwhile, roads have become more expensive to construct and maintain.
Yes, there’s waste in highways just like there is in every other government program, but even the most ardent anti-tax Republicans agree there’s a funding problem. However, members of both parties either oppose or are afraid of raising the gas tax. So at the state level, legislators offered some suggestions during this past session, none of which passed. Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, tried to transfer money from the general fund to highways. That bill died because Gov. Asa Hutchinson was opposed, along with other groups that get money from that same fund. Rep. Prissy Hickerson, R-Texarkana, filed a bill that would have allowed the Highway Commission to reduce the size of the state’s highway system – the nation’s 12th largest – by dropping off little-used miles. Presumably, the counties would have been responsible for them, but they didn’t want that responsibility. Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, filed a bill to create a pilot program where Arkansas would study a vehicle miles traveled tax, where drivers pay taxes based on how many miles they drive. It’s been withdrawn.
There is some movement, at least in Arkansas. After opposing Douglas’ bill, Hutchinson agreed to appoint a task force shortly after the session to study highway funding. Hutchinson said the task force’s work could lead to a special session. It’s not clear what the task force will recommend that hasn’t been recommended before, but it’s a start. As Douglas told me before he pulled his bill, “We’ve shaken the tree. The coconuts have fallen, and now we need to figure out how we’re going to make coconut cream pie.”
At the federal level? Congress needs to do what it used to do, which is pass a bill that fully funds highway projects for five or six years, so state highway departments can plan, and to fund it transparently, not with funny money. What will probably happen is that Congress will wait until the last minute and then throw together a stopgap measure to buy time and avoid making hard choices. Which is what it did last year.
“Everybody’s coming up with options, but the options seem to be more of the same,” said AHTD Director Scott Bennett, who is clearly frustrated. “We’re going to find a way to shore up the trust fund for a year, and that will give us time to talk about a real solution. And the time to talk about a real solution is now.”
If they pass only a one-year measure, then the next time the subject comes up will be in the middle of a presidential election, when not much constructive happens. Looks like it’s going to be a bumpy ride, in more ways than one.