The now completed 2019 Arkansas General Assembly session was historic for Arkansas roads and bridges as lawmakers passed a funding package that will exceed $400 million annually if voters agree to a sales tax extension in November 2020.
A lot of groups that believe in better roads worked together in a political climate where aligning different points of view doesn’t often happen. A conservative, Republican-majority general assembly came together and voted for new taxes to repair roads and bridges. In large part, this happened because of the steady leadership of Gov. Asa Hutchinson as well as Senate and House leaders who knew it was time to finally address the fact that 25% of our roads are failing.
The legislature approved $95 million in annual state funding to address road and bridge issues. Another $205 million per year will go to the Arkansas Department of Transportation if voters say yes to extending an existing sales tax. That question will be on the ballot in November of next year.
While these measures will channel significant new revenue to the state, millions of dollars will also go directly to counties and towns if the ballot measure is approved. This means your mayor or county judge will have the ability to maximize the impact of the funding where you live. People hear the phrase “road and bridge infrastructure” and they think about six-lane highways connecting major cities, but the reality is that the effort here is to upgrade local roads, with decisions made by local leaders.
Our hope is that we can all come together to approve the ballot measure next year. Real progress comes when thoughtful people with different points of view align for a greater good. This campaign is going to have to be a priority for all communities. And if it is managed right, you will hopefully get a sense of what specific work can be done in your community to improve quality of life if you vote yes.
To be successful, we must stay unified on the campaign as well as lawmakers who came together when voting on the funding. Arkansas is not big enough for multiple regions to thrive if we don’t look out for each other. Voters in Northwest Arkansas are going to have to continue to say yes to new tax revenue if we want great roads, new hospitals and exceptional schools. At the same time, people in Little Rock are going to have to realize they may think Northwest Arkansas communities have all the resources needed, but there are plenty of roads and bridges in dire need of repair in Gravette, Pea Ridge and Rogers.
Asking voters anywhere to approve or extend a tax is never easy, and it only works when a thoughtful case is made about the local need for the revenue. Bentonville voters recently overwhelming rejected a new tax to replace an aging county courthouse, while Fayetteville voters this month emphatically said yes to 10 tax proposals for a wide range of community improvements. Are political trends that different in Fayetteville and Bentonville? Maybe they are, but we live in a world where voter attitudes shift so subtly that we don’t really know what they are at any given moment.
It’s 206 miles from my driveway in Rogers to the state Capitol in Little Rock. What is clear is that smart private companies, local governments, elected officials and community leaders are going to have to keep in mind that we can’t let that distance make us feel like we are living in different states. As we think about the ballot question campaign that lies ahead, leaders in Little Rock, the Arkansas Delta and Northwest Arkansas need to remember that in so many ways, we have more in common than we sometimes think.
Editor’s note: Joe Quinn is executive director of the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation and a member of the Bentonville Board of Education. He can be reached at 479-426-5931. The opinions expressed are those of the author.