This summer, nearly $1 billion in four-lane highway construction projects across the state is scheduled thanks to the Connecting Arkansas Program (CAP) which is the half-cent sales tax approved by 58% of the voters in 2012.
This year represents the peak of the CAP with construction winding down in 2019 and 2020 and project completion to coincide with the sales tax expiring in 2023. There will be plenty of orange barrels around the state for the next three years.
When the CAP funding ends the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) will be left with only regular annual highway funding, and herein lies the problem for our highway system going forward. Due to several factors, including more fuel-efficient vehicles, no highway user fee increase since 2001, and construction costs growing by more than 150% during the last 20 years, our annual funding now only provides enough revenue to maintain about half (or 8,000 miles) of our entire 16,400-mile state highway system, a system that is 12th largest in the nation.
Starting in 2017, the Highway Commission made the decision to spend 80% of our flexible, discretionary funds to preserve the existing system, i.e. pavement overlays and congestion relief. Of all federal and state funds available for construction, 90% are now spent on the Arkansas Primary Highway Network (APHN) which includes 48% of our system (7,800 miles) but carries over 90% of the traffic. This means that only 10% of our total funds are available for our secondary system which includes most of our rural highways that are so important to our agriculture and tourism industries, especially here in eastern Arkansas.
ARDOT will again in January request additional funding. Each year that passes without additional funding means more money is needed to catch up with maintenance work that has been deferred. Additional funding needs are now approximately $400 million per year just to maintain the existing system at a minimum level.
Until now, the Commission has chosen to concentrate on the positive results that would come from adequately investing in our system. But given the environment regarding any type of additional state funding, we have now decided to share the other half of the story, which is, what happens to our highway system going forward if no new funding is approved in the coming years. We call this “Managing the Decline of the Highway System.”
Under this scenario, with declining revenues and increasing construction costs, decisions will have to be made as to which highways are critical to the system, and therefore, should be adequately maintained and what to do with the highways that ARDOT cannot adequately maintain.
To help us in the process of identifying which highways to focus on going forward, ARDOT has identified which highways actually would pay for themselves over a 20-year period based on the number of vehicles using each highway section. Based on our preliminary computations, a two-lane highway with 4,000 or more vehicles per day is the threshold. Of Arkansas’ 16,400 highway miles, only about 4,100 miles or 25% of our system carry 4,000 or more vehicles per day. Another 25% or about 3,700 miles carries less than 500 vehicles per day and are already in poor condition requiring reconstruction due to a lack of funding. This does not mean that all highways with less than 4,000 or less than 500 vehicles will necessarily be impacted, but it will be a factor in our decision process.
Again, the Commission has just begun this process, so no decisions are imminent, but we are starting to identify our options. These could include converting selected highways into gravel roads, reducing the level of design, and requiring capital improvement projects to include local funding.
These options may change, but if nothing is done to address our funding shortfall, these are examples of some of the decisions that the Commission may have to make as ARDOT continues to stretch taxpayers’ dollars as far as possible while managing the decline of our highway system.
Editor’s note: Alec Farmer is a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.