House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Penn., journeyed to Northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith regions on Monday (Oct. 6) to have a first hand look at infrastructure needs in Arkansas' third Congressional district.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said the purpose of the visit was to give Shuster a first-hand account of the needs in his home district.
"I have pleaded with him, given the opportunities I see in my own district, I've pleaded with him to come down to the district and see it first hand," Womack said, adding that the process of getting the Pennsylvania Republican to Arkansas began with a series of presentations in Washington highlighting the local infrastructure needs.
Shuster's visit not only gives Womack and local and state officials the opportunity to highlight the infrastructure needs including dredging the Arkansas River to 12 feet, but it gives Shuster an opportunity to see first hand the ongoing work to make Arkansas stand out as a state that is investing more local money in federal projects, such as completing Interstate 49 and highway rehabilitation across the state.
Womack said he and Shuster started the day in Benton County with a flyover of the Bella Vista Bypass that will eventually reroute traffic away from the city and through rural Benton County and McDonald County in Missouri. A vote for an increase in taxes to fund Missouri's portion of the project and several other statewide projects failed to win approval earlier this year, putting into question when the project could be completed.
After meeting with stakeholders in Northwest Arkansas, Womack brought Shuster to the Fort Smith area, where the two were presented with information on infrastructure needs along the Arkansas River, such as the dredging, but also discussed in detail additional I-49 construction. Shuster said he was impressed with the intermodal opportunities he saw in region, noting that highway, water and rail were "the fundamentals for growing an economy and you have all that right here in Fort Smith."
He said the knowledge of the region he gained through Monday's trip would be beneficial when returning to Washington to work on a "surface transportation bill.”
"This will be something that we look at and try to focus those dollars really on the major corridors in this country that move freight, that move people, and I-49 is one of those corridors. So (I will be) working with Steve (Womack) in Washington on the next surface bill, making sure we're focusing those dollars to go to places that you see right here, this roadway, that need to be completed from Canada down to Louisiana.”
The surface transportation bill Shuster discussed would likely be a five to six-year bill to appropriate funds for as many as 40 different transportation corridors across the nation, of which I-49 would likely be included, he said. The challenge in the current Congress with getting funding is the no earmark policy in place for the last several years, which has limited the ability of members of Congress to direct money to their home districts for specific projects.
In discussing the challenges, Womack said much of the I-49 stretch from Alma to Fayetteville was paid for through former U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt's successful use of earmarks to bring dollars home to the third district. Shuster said convincing his colleagues in the House of the importance of funding for projects like I-49 would not necessarily be a daunting task.
"It's capital investment into the United States economy, capital investment into our transportation system. … They (other members of Congress) understand that and they know the importance of making those investments. So this is not pork. This a fundamental, this is a core function of government – state, local and federal levels of government – making sure we're all participating.”
It was similar to the language used by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a senior member of the Senate's Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, who went so far as to say the Constitution mandates infrastructure investment and discussed various ways of developing new revenue streams to fund a broke federal Highway Trust Fund.
Shuster said there is talk of taking "repatriated funds" from offshore accounts and companies that owe U.S. taxes and putting that toward replenishment of the trust fund, as well as taking oil production leases and royalties and using it for the trust fund.
"We're looking at a number of different ways to fill the hole in the trust fund because that's our big question right now because to get a five or six-year bill, we've got to make sure the trust fund is whole, is flush through that period.”
Regardless of how much money gets placed back in the federal Highway Trust Fund, Shuster said the thing working in Arkansas' favor as far as securing funding for projects like building out segments of I-49 is the state's chipping in above the federally-mandated minimum cost share of 80-20. Shuster said a meeting with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Monday detailed the state's willingness to pay for 65% of the projects, leaving the federal government on the hook for only 35%, versus 80% on the traditional highway funding model.
"We have to reward states that are doing that, so Arkansas is doing that. What I see here in Fort Smith with the modes – water, rail, and highway, especially – you've really got something to build upon. And when you look at the next 20 years, the amount of freight that's going to travel through this country is on an incline. And making sure places like this are able to capture that opportunity is important.”
There were no firm commitments of what funding from a future transportation bill would go toward, though the 13 mile stretch between Barling and Alma which includes a bridge spanning the Arkansas River was discussed. The bridge itself is estimated to be around $200 million, while the entire stretch between Barling and Alma is estimated to cost $350 million.
Mat Pitsch, executive director of the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority who will be sworn in as a state representative in 2015, said Inhofe's visit in August and Shuster's visit Monday were steps toward bringing money back to the region and hopefully completing that section or other sections of the interstate, such as the Bella Vista Bypass.
"It's invaluable to have someone, especially of that stature (Shuster's chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee).”