Banker, farmer, businessman and community leader Dick Trammel is in his final year of service on the Arkansas Highway Commission. Now serving as commission chairman, the Pocahontas native came to Rogers in 1975 as vice president of First National Bank & Trust Co., which later became Arvest Bank.
The 1960 graduate of the University of Arkansas was appointed in January 2009 to the prestigious Arkansas Highway Commission by then-Gov. Mike Beebe. Trammel’s term will expire in January 2019. He is married to Nancy Trammel, and together they have six children, nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Trammel spoke recently with Talk Business & Politics CEO Roby Brock and reflected on the past decade as a highway commissioner.
Roby Brock: Your time on the Arkansas Highway Commission is winding down. You have about a half-year left on a 10-year term. What do you feel has been your biggest achievement? What are you proudest of that you’ve accomplished?
Dick Trammel: The greatest accomplishment, I think, that we’ve made in my 10 years, is the ability to get the people of Arkansas to approve the 2011 Interstate Rehabilitation Program and 2012 Connecting Arkansas Program. What that has done for our state, you know, we had one of the worst interstate systems in the country as far as safety and potholes. In the time we’ve finished the Interstate Rehabilitation Program, about 70% of our interstate will be considered really in good shape and good for traffic safety.
Now, I can’t say enough about Connecting Arkansas and the Interstate [Rehabilitation] Program. Connecting Arkansas was supposed to have about 36 projects. Right now, 10 of them are under construction, and then, we have projects under the Interstate [Rehabilitation] Program, which will spend more than a billion dollars on over 450 miles of Arkansas roads. If you see orange barrels, it’s gonna get better. Just be patient.
But the biggest project you know, six lanes from Fayetteville to Bentonville, makes such a huge difference. Last week, we cut the ribbon for the first Highway 412 Northern Bypass from I-49 over to [Highway] 112, and that will eventually lead to going around Tontitown.
I realize that costs have gone up. For example, in 1993, for $10 million, we could overlay 200 miles of highway. Today, for $10 million we can do about 54 miles of highway, so the cost has gone up.
The other thing that is really important to me is we’re the third most-efficient highway department in the country. I’ve lived in Arkansas for 80 years, and I can remember when I always appreciated Mississippi and Louisiana, because we’d be 47th or whatever. But to be third in the nation, that says so much for our people in efficiency.
Brock: What have you not accomplished that you hoped to have accomplished during your term?
Trammel: I was hopeful that we could convince the legislature that we needed funding. The legislative audit committee checked us out. We have about $10 billion of needs in the next 10 years, and we’re looking at about $4.4 billion. So we’re about $4.8 billion short of the monies we need.
And my concern is rural highways in Arkansas. I ran the cotton gin at O’Kean, Arkansas, for 10 years and was in a cotton co-op. I realize how important farm-to-market roads are to our people. I realize how important state highways are everywhere, but our concern is maintaining the rural highways in Arkansas. And I’m hopeful that we can convince the legislature to come up with the funding for highways, or let us take it to the people and see if they’ll tell us what they want.
Brock: You’ve surveyed voter attitudes about highways and funding. What is your assessment of where Arkansans are?
Trammel: We did a large survey last summer, and we found out that people really don’t want to increase the gas tax. The gas tax hadn’t been increased since 1993 — it’s 21.5 cents for gasoline, 22.5 cents for diesel. I’m just hopeful that between the commission and the department and the legislature, we can come up with adequate funding to maintain all of our highways.
Of course, I’m proud of what’s happening in Northwest Arkansas, but I drive from Little Rock to Memphis on Interstate 40. I’m not too proud of that. It’s improved some, but the truck traffic and what’s going on there, we’ve just got to improve our funding some way.
And people want better highways. It’s pretty obvious when you look at the Bella Vista Bypass. It’s pretty obvious with the six lanes now from Fayetteville to Bentonville. It’s pretty obvious what we’re doing between I-540 and Fort Smith. It’s pretty obvious when you view Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith. That was one of the projects that was just getting started when I went on, and today, it’s unbelievable what’s happening at Chaffee Crossing. They took a pig’s eye and made it a princess when they took off that camp and made it what is it today. It’s jobs, and it’s improvement.
Brock: Last question for you. Who is the most influential highway commissioner?
Trammel: Hey, you’re trying to get me in trouble, Roby! Let me just put it this way: In my opinion, it takes the five of us to make things happen, and the truth of that is, I respect every one of them.
Brock: It was a trick question, Dick! The most influential highway commissioner is always the most recent appointee, because he or she is going to be there the longest.
Trammel: I’ll tell Philip Taldo. But I will say this: In my 10 years, I had a great appreciation for Madison Murphy when we attempted to pass the Connecting Arkansas Program. That gentlemen put his dollars in, he took off and he traveled this state promoting passage of that program. I’ve had the privilege of working with nine highway commissioners, and they’ve all been great.