Lawmakers get review of $1.4 billion in Arkansas highway construction projects

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 359 views 

State Highway and Transportation Department Director (AHTD) Scott Bennett on Monday (Sept. 12) offered Arkansas lawmakers their first chance to review dozens of state highway construction projects that are pumping more than $1.4 billion into local communities in every region of the state.

Bennett, during a joint House and Senate committee hearing at the State Capitol, laid out details on near-term state and longer-term federal projects that have turned long stretches of the state’s roads, bridges, highway and interstate into construction zones.

“What we have done is laid out a report and it goes through projects under construction and projects that are scheduled that have not started yet,” Bennett told lawmakers during the joint House and Senate committee hearing on transportation issues.

Under the Arkansas Highway Improvement Act of 2016 signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in late May, the Arkansas Highway Commission was mandated by the legislature to report on the progress of each public road construction project with a price tag of $10 million or more. The legislation calls for the newly formed Highway Commission Review and Advisory Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council to review the reports each quarter.

At Monday’s hearing, Bennett shared with lawmakers and the review panel the initial list of more than 130 projects in every region of the state that are expected to be completed over the next four years. Sixty-five of those projects are now under construction, including three in the state largest metropolitan areas (Benton, Pulaski and Washington counties) costing more than $94 million.

Despite the busy construction zones and traffic tie ups in some areas, Bennett said the boost to economic development and construction jobs to local communities across the state is a story that the Highway Department has struggled to tell.

“When I talk to my counterparts across the country. We talk about the same things. We all have a difficult time telling our stories. We finish a project and we go on to the next project. We have to a better job of telling our story about the good things that we do,” Bennett told lawmakers and several state Highway commissioners gather at the committee meeting.

Under the five-year Arkansas Highway Improvement Plan of 2016 signed into law late May, state budget officials made a one-time transfer of $40 million in rainy day funds to the Highway Transfer Fund to take care of highway needs for fiscal year 2017 that began on July 1.

In the future, the Highway Transfer Fund would be financed by deposits of 25% of state surplus funds. A Securities Reserve Fund will provide transfer of investment earnings from the state Treasury of $1.5 million this year and then thereafter increasing to $20 million in year two, three and four, and $25 million in year five.

Under the legislation passed during the third special session of fiscal 2016, the highway improvement plan created legislative oversight that provides more transparency on how state highway dollars are spent and calls for a review of rules and reports to the General Assembly – although no approval is required. In addition to the voluminous quarterly reports and reviews, the recently enacted highway bill calls for the State Highway Commission to submit pending priorities designated for highway construction contracts and public road construction projects to the legislative review panel by Oct. 1, 2017. That report, Bennett said, will be completed well before the legislative deadline a year from now.

Besides the list of state-funded projects underway, Bennett also provided lawmakers with an overview of the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, or STIP, which includes all of the proposed highway projects under consideration for the next five years through the federal highway bill. Following passage of the federal highway bill at the end of 2015, state highway officials said there are almost 700 projects listed in Arkansas at an estimated cost is about $4.8 billion.

“This is only a snapshot in time because things are changing every day out in construction,” Bennett told lawmakers. “We are moving more to taking care of what we have. This is really the guide that will govern what we’ll do over next few years.”

In other business before the joint legislative panel, lawmakers unanimously approved the adoption of two interim studies that could appear before the full body in the upcoming legislation. The first proposal Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, would direct general revenues used for desegregation expenses to the AHTD fund.

The other interim study, sponsored by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, would amend the time authorized to apply for vehicle title and license in Arkansas, and extend the time a temporary paper buyer’s tag is valid in the state of Arkansas. Both interim studies were passed unanimously without discussion or further action.