AR Dot holds first regional public meeting in Monticello

Taxes to help maintain and expand Arkansas roads were the topic of a regional public meeting held by the Arkansas Department of Transportation Tuesday, Jan. 21, at the University of Arkansas at Monticello Fine Arts Center.

The meeting, the first of 12 to be held across the state in the first quarter of 2020, was informational in nature, explaining to the public what a vote for the half cent sales tax means to Arkansas roadways and what a vote against the tax would also mean in terms of money available to maintain and expand the roadway system in Arkansas. The tax is issue 1 in the general election in November.

"Tonight kicks off the first of 12 regional meetings we are having across the state where we are educating and informing the citizens about extending the half cent sales tax," said Danny Straessle, ArDOT public information officer. "The half cent sales tax that is in place right now is temporary. It was voted on by the public in November 2012 and was only supposed to last 10 years. It is a half cent sales tax on everything but food, gas and medicine and the money that has come from that has funded a lot of large projects across the state."

As part of the governors long term highway plan, the issue will be on the ballot as Issue 1 to make the temporary tax that will expire, a permeant half cent sales tax, according to Staessle.

The plan to fix, maintain and expand the Arkansas highway system, the twelfth in the United States with 16,400 miles of roadways, is part of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson's long term highway funding plan, which is a combination of two components, Act 416 and Issue 1.

Act 416 was enacted in early 2019 by the state legislature. The act provided immediate funding dedicated to system preservation which takes care of the roads and bridges Arkansas currently has. It generates an investment of $95 million annually for state highways and $26 million annually for city and county streets and roads. 

In an Arkansas state legislative audit in 2017, according to information provided by ArDOT, it was confirmed that Arkansas needed $478 million annually to keep up the roads and bridges in Arkansas and to continue to expand the system to better service Arkansans. The Governor's Highway funding plan, using the combination of Issue 1 and Act 416, the state would have $300 million annually for the roads with the sales tax providing a projected $205 million, for system preservation and capital projects beginning in fiscal year 2024. Capital projects currently funded through 2023 are part of the funds received from the 10 year tax passed in 2012. Issue 1 would be a continuance of the 2012 half cent tax and make it permanent. 

As part of the information provided, ArDOT emphasized the benefits, not just for the roads but also for Arkansas' economy.

In ten years, the tax will provide $8.2 billion dollars in economic activity, support 3, 596 jobs annually, maintain interstates in a state of good repair, increase safety improvements, implement a second Connecting Arkansas Program, repair and replace poor condition and posted bridges and improve approximately 7,000 miles of non-interstate highways. 

"Right now we spend about $400 million a year state wide on construction projects," said Deric Wyatt, ArDOT district 2 engineer. "If this tax passes we are looking to see that increase to over $700 million a year in construction projects."

The $700 million is based off of the $95 million Act 416 gives ArDOT, combined with the $205 million issue 1 will provide to the department and the $440 million already earmarked for current construction projects. 

One of the issues the state has been faced with over the years is inflation. In 1993 the federal gas tax was 18 cents per gallon, today, it is still 18 cents per gallon while the costs have grown. According to the ArDOT presentation, college tuition has jumped 379% in that time period, Gas has increased by 137%, national median income by 81% and the cost of a new car has increased by 51%. Construction costs have also risen with $10 million in 1995 paying for 200 miles of overlay, today for the same price, the highway department can overlay 54 miles. 

If the half cent sales tax passes and becomes permanent, the 10-year Renew Arkansas Highways program has budgeted $3 billion for pavement preservation, $1.1 billion for Bridge improvements, $1 billion for interstate maintenance, $0.5 billion for safety improvements and $1.8 billion for capital and congestion relief. 

Southeast Arkansas and Drew County can already see how some of the money from the 2012 vote has been spent. The 530 connector that currently runs just north of Monticello to Highway 11 in Star City is one example, as well as the beginning of I-69 just south of Monticello connecting US Highway 425 to US Highway 278 with future plans to further improve Southeast Arkansas roads in the next ten years if the funding is there from the half cent sales tax.

"We would also have a second Connecting Arkansas program which does more pavement expansions projects, widening, congestion relief, passing lanes, those kind of projects," said Wyatt. "A lot of the Connecting Arkansas Projects would include future portions of I-69, building two lanes of those in certain areas between basically the end of the Monticello by-pass south of town over toward Eldorado area. We haven't identified exactly which sections we would do but part of that funding would go toward that and looking at finishing the (530) connector up to Highway 11 south of Star City.

"A lot of the projects we still have planned right now are to do some pavement preservation work which are overlays, chip seals, those kind of things to extend the life and make the road better. We are looking at doing work on (US Highway) 138 between Monticello and Winchester, (US) Highway 35 going back over toward Rye and some work on (US Highway) 278 going back toward Warren," Wyatt continued. "Then we also have planned currently, based on current funding to work on (Interstate) 69 to go from the east side of the bypass, and build a new location for 17 miles over to McGehee to tie to 65. There is some additional work we are looking at doing on 35 going down toward Dermott. Looking at doing some pavement preservation work on 425 both North and South of town, basically milling out the top 2 inches and repaving those sections of roads. That is what we have planned if funding does pass, it gives us more funding to do pavement preservation work on 35, 425."

For the state of Arkansas' highways, the half cent sales tax ensures that the roads will have the funding to be maintained and preserved.

"I think the biggest issue about this is what will happen if it doesn't pass," said Scott E. Bennett, P.E., ArDot director. "For the local level there will be a significant increase in funding for local roads. On the other hand for highways, we have tried to make progress over the last few years of taking care of what we do have, we aren't going to be able to do that. The bottom line is we will be able to continue a lot of progress and touch the vast majority of highways in the state over a ten year period but if that revenue is not available, we can't do it. And then the highways are going to continue to get worse and worse which is not good."

"It is not good for agriculture, the economy, school busses, you getting to your job or anything," he continued. "That is what we are here to talk about. How big of an improvement we can make if issue 1 passes. 

Since 15% of the taxes are turned back over to the cities and 15% is turned back to counties, the passing or not passing will have a huge impact on all roads, local and state wide.

"In the end this is money for all roads in the state, whether it is a county road, city street or state highway," said Bennett, "because of the turn back money that goes to the local areas. A lot of roads in this area are farm to market type roads. If we can't take care of the bridges, we have to put a weight restriction on them which means trucks can't carry a full load, which means they have to make more than one trip, which adds to their costs. More wear and tear on vehicles, more fuel cost and time."

According to Bennett, that doesn't just effect the roads.

"In the end that is more money that is not going back into the economy," he explained. "So that is the reason it is also an economic development program because that money keeps turning over and it keeps turning over quicker, which is good for everyone in the state."

After presenting those in attendance to a slide show explaining what would and would not happen depending on whether issue 1 is passed or not and showing a short video, the floor was opened to comments. Drew County Judge Robert Akin spoke first for Drew County and the City of Monticello expressing his firm support in favor of Issue 1 pointing out that for Drew County the difference is over $400,000 annually.

For Drew County, the difference is a projected $480,194 for year 2024. For Jerome, the difference is $909; Monticello stands to lose $220,641; Tiller, $5,244; Wilmar, $11,910 and $3892 for Winchester for a total of $242,596 or a total of $722,790 when you combine county funds with the combined funds of the cities in Drew County.

Dan Flowers, former ArDOT chairman, also spoke, pointing out the importance of finishing Interstate 69 which will run from Heron, Mich to Laredo, Texas, connecting two of the top three border crossings in the United States and what that could mean in terms of travel through Southeast Arkansas, opening up this part of Arkansas to ports on the gulf.

ArDOT is looking for feed back from the community expressing their concerns and provided a comment form at the meeting and also has it available online.

To view the slide show and video shown at the meeting and to access the ArDOT Renew Ar Highways comment form as well as find the break down of projected revenue for counties and cities around the state, visit ardot.gov/renew. Find ArDOT on Twitter @myArDOT or search #RenewARHighways.  

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