Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Highway Commission Hubris

The State Highway Commission is exhibit "A" for a malady which I call "fiefdom government."   Every time you fill your gas tank, every time you renew your vehicle tags, you are sending money to five unelected and largely unaccountable men to spend as they wish.  Power that should belong to the elected representatives of the people, the legislature, has been transferred to a few powerful individuals - often individuals who are large donors to one political club or another.

But it gets worse.   The state is divided into ten districts with each commissioner "representing" two districts- one they live in and the other they do not.   Each commissioner has two of ten districts, and controls an equal share of the money, but the districts are simply based on geography, not population.   That means that some districts get four or five times the discretionary highway dollars per person as do the more heavily populated districts!   This results in a massive misallocation of resources as districts like 1,2, and 7 get new roads with light traffic while districts like 9,6, 4 and 10 are clogged with traffic congestion.

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UPDATE: Highway Commissioner Madison Murphy and I had a cordial conversation. I asked him what he most objected to in this report.   Besides the use of the word "hubris" in the title, he most objected to a couple of things about this article.  One was the above paragraph and the connection between the advocacy zones on the map and the way each commissioner can spend money.

Each commissioner does control an equal share of the money, but Murphy pointed out that the ten advocacy districts no longer play the same role in new construction that they did prior to some changes he helped initiate.  So while the districts I have numbered above are congested/less congested as I indicate above, the connection to a given commissioner and any one district is more tenuous, at least formally, than the paragraph above implied.    Of course, just because someone no longer has defined lines they advocate for does not mean a commissioner still does not negotiate for his own home town and surrounding area.
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Of the ten urban highway segments with the highest level of congestion, four are in Pulaski County, two are in Benton County with two more in Washington County.  Those are in districts with the lowest per person funding.  White County and Faulkner county had the other two highest congested spots.   Craighead county did not have any one stretch make the ten most congested, but they also had a rather high level of overall congestion compared to other parts of the state.    At the risk of oversimplfying, if you live in a county through which I-40 passes, or in a county above that, you are getting ripped off by the way dollars are distributed in our current state highway system.

But it gets worse.  I knew some of this information, but at a symposium put on by Conservative Arkansas and the Washington County Tea Party I learned some shocking details.   State Senator Jeremy Hutchinson passed a bill through the senate which would allow the districts to be redrawn so they kept up with changes in Arkansas' population patterns.    When it passed, a member of the Highway Commission called and asked him what he wanted.   He said if they agreed to redraw the lines more fairly themselves he would pull the bill, but they had to go on record.

The Highway Commission voted to redraw the lines, and sent an operative to a committee meeting to read a statement to that effect into the record.   Hutchinson withdrew the bill.   He later learned that the Highway Commission then met again and voted to rescind their previous commitment to re-draw the lines!

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UPDATE: This was the other part of the article that Murphy objected to, although he had to end the conversation before we got into too much detail.  He would only own up to "not keeping Jeremy informed enough of the process."   Based on what I heard Sen. Hutchinson say, I would be surprised if Hutchinson considered that was the real problem- his problem seemed to be that he understood them to have made a commitment that they did not keep rather than a failure to be informed of the way a study was trending.   Did the commission promise to change the lines and funding or did they only promise to study the question?  That seems to be a key question to know to clear up this mess.

In addition to that unfortunate situation, funding has not been allocated fairly in the past and Murphy acknowledged that.    I view the system as flawed even when the men running it have the best of intentions and are men of talent and ability.    The principle of "reversion to the mean" will ensure that over time a flawed system will produce the kind of flawed results we have seen in Arkansas highways.

 A college football team might get a great coach once in a while who takes the program to new heights but Kansas St. is never going to be Alabama on a regular basis.  The great coach leaves, and Kansas St. "reverts to the mean" and goes back to being Kansas St. again.  Ergo, even if Madison Murphy is doing a great job as highway commissioner (and he is in terms of efficiency, it's resource allocation where we mostly differ) the mean for our present highway system is a lack of accountability to the people and miss-allocation of resources.
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Hutchinson acted very nervous when relaying this information.  He kept saying they were "honorable men as individuals" and that "they were very apologetic."      He would not even take a position on the November sales tax issue.

Well, the people in that room had no problem taking a position against a tax increase to pour more money into a flawed state highway system.   Both Conservative Arkansas and the Washington County Tea Party, as well as an increasing number of candidates, have linked up to join Better Spending First, a group dedicated to stopping this madness.


1 Comments:

Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

Why would anyone living on I-40 or north of it vote for more money to this flawed highway system?

9:08 AM, August 29, 2012  

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