The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday (Dec. 3) to approve a $305 billion highway bill, with all four members of Arkansas’ House delegation voting yes. The 359-65 vote on HR 22 came after several hours of debate Thursday morning in the House.
The bill was supported by 178 Republicans and 181 Democrats, while 65 Republicans voted no in the House.
Thursday evening in the Senate, the bill cleared by a large majority, 83-16. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., voted in favor of the bill, while Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., voted against the measure.
According to the Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., the five-year bill is the first long-term transportation bill in at least a decade and gives new House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., a key early victory. The Hill reported that the 1,300-page bill will have nearly $205 billion set aside for highways and another $48 bill for transit projects in the next five years. The bill will be funded with revenue from the federal gas tax and nearly $70 billion in so-called “offsets” from the federal budget.
All four members of the House delegation said the bill provides a key consistent funding stream for long-term projects to be done.
An amendment to the bill will also seek to designate U.S. 63 in Northeast Arkansas to I-555 status. U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, who was on the conference committee that ironed out differences in the House and Senate versions, said the amendment provides a strong boost to the regional economy.
“For years, Northeast Arkansas has sought interstate status for U.S. 63, but our state has been unable to bear the $30-$50 million expense needed to build an access road for agricultural vehicles across the St. Francis floodway. My amendment allows for the interstate designation to move forward while at the same time allowing for traditional use of the floodway bridge. Being able to offer interstate access is a very important box to check for businesses, and I believe you’ll see benefits accrue readily not just to Jonesboro, but all of Northeast Arkansas.”
The Arkansas Highway Commission voted Wednesday (Dec. 2) to designate 44 miles of U.S. 63 from I-55 in Crittenden County to U.S. 49 in Jonesboro, as I-555.
Other lawmakers were also optimistic on the bill’s focus.
“Passage of a long term highway and transportation bill is good for Arkansas and good for America. This bill allows local governments to properly plan highway construction and improvement projects. This bill is a benefit to the citizens of Arkansas and our state’s economy,” U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, is pleased a long-term bill is finally moving forward, but not entirely happy with its funding mechanisms.
“This March, Arkansas was forced to shut down 56 planned construction projects across the state because Congress had not given the long-term certainty necessary for our states to adequately plan for the needs of our nation’s transportation infrastructure. That’s unacceptable. While I am disappointed by some of the pay-fors found to get there, I am nevertheless encouraged that the House and Senate were able to work together to bring this five-year, fully-funded surface transportation reauthorization to fruition and put it on the President’s desk,” Womack said.
U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, voted for the bill but also expressed concerns about the structure.
“This conference report is far from perfect, and some of the provisions had no business being a part of a discussion about highways. But in the end, it accomplishes what the people of Arkansas and America need and expect for long-term infrastructure planning. This will be the first time since the George W. Bush Administration that we will have a highway funding bill that gives us the flexibility to fund and finish our most crucial infrastructure projects without burdening hardworking American taxpayers. This legislation facilitates a plan to execute the road and bridge projects long-needed for our state. Infrastructure work offers steady employment and enhances the economic profile of the Natural State,” Hill said.
Sen. Boozman said, “For the first time in ten years, we have a long-term highway bill that will allow Arkansas and other states to provide certainty for important infrastructure improvements, which are so vital to our economic well-being. Hundreds of Arkansas projects were at risk of cancellation or further delays if a long-term bill was not passed. Each year, Arkansas produces over $80 billion goods and products that depend on our highways for delivery to customers, so it is vital that this money is returned to our state to improve our infrastructure.”
He also said he expected President Obama to sign the bill into law.
“The President has indicated that he will sign this bill, which is good news for our economy. The projects themselves create an immediate economic spark for our communities, but the real boon to our economy is in the growth and jobs that come once the projects are completed,” Boozman said. “One of reasons the United States is an economic powerhouse is because of our infrastructure has allowed for us to move goods and services so efficiently. We must ensure that our infrastructure meets the needs to keep America competitive in the global marketplace.”
Cotton said his opposition to the measure was a balance of fiscal concerns that included too much mass transit emphasis and no long-term funding solutions.
“The highway funding package approved by the Senate was a bad deal for Arkansas taxpayers and Arkansas infrastructure. It is five years of spending increases paid for by looting nearly $70 billion from the general fund — yet another Washington kick-the-can exercise — which avoids any attempt to find a sustainable solution for the long-term infrastructure funding issues we face,” Cotton said. “Additionally, while mass transit programs in cities like New York or Boston account for only two percent of all trips, they consume almost 20 percent of the spending in this bill. I don’t believe Arkansans’ tax dollars should be funding a downtown streetcar in Los Angeles. Worst of all, by failing to reform the highway trust fund and spending more over the next five years than originally planned, we are guaranteeing a bailout down the road which will be that much more painful and difficult.
“Arkansans deserve the certainty of a long-term highway bill that’s good for our infrastructure and financial health. Rest assured, I am committed to finding a fiscally responsible way to fund our infrastructure without raising taxes or cutting other programs.”