There are two options available for increasing revenue for much needed highway projects: raise taxes or transfer funding from existing line items in the state budget, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department director Scott Bennett told a Blytheville chamber group Monday.
Bennett spoke during the monthly chamber luncheon at the Blytheville Holiday Inn in front of about 40 people. After an introduction from Blytheville chamber director Liz Smith, Bennett spoke about highway funding and the state agency.
The Blytheville native said his first job was at Day’s Clothing in Blytheville, while his second job was with the highway department helping to build roads in Blytheville. Locally, Bennett said construction on Arkansas 18 from Jonesboro to Blytheville is moving along and is closer to completion.
A $20 million bypass north of Monette will be finished, with the work from the bypass to Manila expected to be complete within the next year or so, Bennett said. The Manila bypass will be open by mid-2017, while a $40 million project across the Big River National Wildlife Area is expected to be ready by mid-2016.
Bennett also spoke about an interstate rehab program. At least $150 million in work on I-40 has been finished in recent years, Bennett said, noting another $200 million in work is needed between now and 2017.
As for funding, Bennett said projects are funded through federal and state highway taxes with a half-cent sales tax funding interstate construction. Arkansas has the 12th largest road system in the country, but is 40th in funding, he noted. Bennett added the state has built only about 3,000 miles of highways since the 1930’s. However, he said the amount of highways under state control has grown nearly 10,000 miles in the same period.
Federal highway tax streams have not seen an increase since the 1990’s while the cost of highway construction has gone up nearly 150%, Bennett said. Tax revenues have been stagnant because of better fuel efficiency standards. Federal highway funding expires Oct. 29, and Congress is on recess until Tuesday. Bennett said there are two groups who get recess – little kids and Congress.
There are two options for state funding – raising taxes or transferring money from existing line items in the Arkansas budget. Bennett said toll roads would not work in Arkansas except in small circumstances and noted that there is a 3/4 vote needed in the legislature to raise gas taxes.
A task force is looking at the overall highway funding. The group will meet Thursday (Oct. 22) in Little Rock, seeking to get a report ready for Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) by Dec. 15. Bennett said he believes the group will provide recommendations for the overall issue, with debate over the issue continuing.