Sunday, September 09, 2007

Hutchinson Makes Case in Highway Dollars Dispute

State Representative Donna Hutchinson of Bella Vista has taken a lot of heat for challenging the status quo on the distribution of state highway dollars. Some in other parts of the state even accused her of attempting to "steal" their highway dollars. A closer look at the facts shows that what she is doing, if one must use such shrill language as theft, is attempting to recover stolen highway dollars.

The northwest zone of the state produces a disproportionate share of the gas-tax dollars, and then those dollars are usually "redistributed" equally among the zones. It would be kind of like a person with a good job throwing their paycheck in a kitty with nine others who make minimum wage and then dividing the proceeds equally. When the person contributing the most decides they would like to keep more of the money they earned, the others jump on him for "stealing" "their money".

Hutchinson makes her case in a press release, and there is a lot of sound logic in it. In fact, some of it sounds like candidate Mike Beebe when he campaigned in Northwest Arkansas and said "the highway dollars should follow the cars." Does anyone remember that? Did the people accusing Donna Hutchinson of attempted theft accuse Mike Beebe of theft when he suggested much the same thing during his campaign for Governor? And will the Governor now move to make policy more like what he said it should be like during the campaign?

For Rep. Hutchinson's press release, click Sunday below and scroll down, or if sent straight here just scroll down.


Anonymous D. Hutchinson said...

The owners of the 32,300 vehicles that drive daily on Hwy 71 back and forth from the Missouri border to Bentonville are waiting for the Highway Department to decide the fate of our Bella Vista Bypass. As we sit in our cars twice daily waiting for long lines of traffic to move, I hope there are no negative thoughts toward the Highway Department or the Arkansas Highway Commissioners. I have the utmost respect for state personnel that must build and repair our transportation system; they are following our state constitution and our laws. State employees are not the problem—the 1952 Mack/Blackwell Amendment governing our highway dollars is the problem. It’s rigid, out-dated, and inefficient. We need another amendment that reflects the reality of our Arkansas roads. Ninety-two percent (92%) of our traffic travels on half our roads; the other half sees only 8% of the traffic. Half of our roads are becoming more and more congested and always needing repair. The other roads are beautiful with few cars enjoying their splendor. That’s reality.

Currently the dispensing of highway funds doesn’t reflect reality. Our state is divided into ten highway districts and the commissioners allot funds equally over generally a ten year span. We see many problems with this formula.

1. Highway dollars aren’t following the cars. Governor Beebe campaigned on changing the way funds are divided; I hope he keeps that promise. Our main priority in dispensing highway funds should be this: END CONGESTION-FIX THE PROBLEM.

2. Highway dollars are divided without consideration of cost per mile. As a simplistic illustration of a complex problem lets say each of the ten districts gets $10 million dollars. It cost $10 million to build ONE mile of highway in the mountains. For $10 million, our road crews can lay TWO miles of highway in the wonderful flat delta area of our state. After five years, the mountain district has five new miles of road and the delta has ten new miles of road, but the Mountains have twice as many vehicles traveling their roads as the flat region does. The districts with high cost and more cars will (as one of my kindergarten students said) get “behinder and behinder!” Congestion will continue to get worse because funds are divided by dollars and not by miles.

3. Highway dollars are divided without consideration for safety of our citizens. Currently each commissioner may put safety first within his own district, but there is no state wide priority for safety. Highway 540 is our prime example. Highway 71 over Boston Mountains was one of the ten most dangerous highways in America. Congressman Hammerschmidt spent twenty-five years trying to get a new bypass built. I’m sure we all remember the many warning signs that were added every year. SIX HAVE DIED OVER THE LAST TWO YEARS—DON’T YOU BE NEXT! Remember the many flashing lights posted on the mountain road? The speed limits required us to inch our way around those treacherous curves. Why did it take so long to correct this hazardous trek over the mountains? Highway funds are divided equally—safety was not a factor. The state finally built 540 but it cost more than the district’s equal share; so for years after completion, the Ozark mountain districts received no money from the highway department. None…zero until the equalization process was complete. Money wasn’t coming for new highways, but the traffic count increased and the Ozark districts were getting “behinder and behinder.”

4. Highway dollars are dispensed without considering inflation. Another simple example: The highway department sees a need for Highway ABC and estimates it will cost $80 million. After five years, the state starts building highway ABC but with inflation, the cost is now $250 million! The state can’t afford to build Highway ABC now because it will demand more money than the other districts receive. Highway ABC is placed on the “dream list” and is not built. Let’s hope the Bella Vista Bypass is not put on the Dream List.

5. The Arkansas Highway Commission is the most independent commission in the nation. It really doesn’t matter how the US Congress allots monies for our highway needs, the Arkansas Highway Commission can over rule them. Which means the funds will be divided equally. When our elected senators and congressmen request funds in Washington DC, they must have a letter of agreement from the Arkansas Highway Commissioners. Congressman Hammerschmidt easily convinced the gang in DC we needed a new road over Boston Mountain, but our current method of funding prevented them from allocating the funds until the Commissioners allowed it. Once again, I have no problem with our commissioners; they are following the law.

6. Highway funds are dispensed without considering our state is a link with other national highway systems such as Missouri’s newly completed interstate coming to Bella Vista. The congested traffic lines will be getting longer.

What new amendment can correct this situation?

1. Half of our highway funds should be used to end congestion. Fix the most severe first and work down the list; every section in the state has some congested state road. Dispense the other half following the current formula equally dividing funds between the ten districts. This funding plan matches reality.

2. A two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Arkansas General Assembly will be needed to declare a Transportation Crisis, and therefore monies can be used for an unusual incident. If the earthquake fault along our eastern border ever starts to rumble, state roads there wouldn’t be congested; they just wouldn’t exist. Safety of our citizens should be paramount.

3. Currently we tax 22 cents on every gallon of gas. When the price of oil shoots up, the cost of building highways also increases. Arkansas citizens use less gas when the price is up, so the state receives fewer highway dollars just when the cost to build highways goes up. We should drop this approach and tax by the dollar-not the gallon. How much tax should we have on the price of gas ? 6%, 8%, 10%? What if the price of oil drops and the gas tax would drop below our current 22 Cents? If the cost of oil drops, the price of building highways would also drop, so why keep collecting higher taxes from our citizens? Switching to a gas/sales tax should produce some terrific debates on the floor of the Arkansas House. I can hardly wait. I don’t have all or even a few of the answers, but I know we need a funding formula that breathes and changes as the economic climate changes. I also know I will not be voting for any tax increase under the current funding formula.

I have the greatest respect for Mr. Dan Flowers, Director of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, and his staff. Arkansans should appreciate our highway commissioners. It’s a tough, thankless job. They can’t make everyone happy. Their stress levels could be lowered if the funding formula wasn’t rigid and we could give them more money to build better roads. A new amendment to our state’s constitution would slice the pie differently, but the pie would be larger.

We will still need partnerships between the state, counties, and cities. We must compete and interact with not only other states but often with other nations. People and products must move smoothly along our highways, rivers, bridges, and rails; so let’s pass a new funding formula that grows and changes with our state.

Donna Hutchinson
State Rep
District 98

9:41 AM, September 09, 2007  
Anonymous c.b. said...

I don't think anyone would disagree that NWA deserves their share of money to MAINTAIN their roads & a MODERATE amount of new consruction, but to say that they should get their WHOLE SHARE of new construction money in perportion to the percentage of the revenue they raise, is shortsighted & oversimplifies the situation.

It is not wise to keep expanding the infrastructure aroud one isolated region while allowing the rest of the state to be choked off from access to trade, transportation, etc.

For example,
If the new Interstate 549 was completed from Fort Smith to Texarkana imagine the economic boom it would provide to the whole state including NWA, fixing the current situation where, basically, Arkansas is cut off from trade routes & business north & south.
This new Interstate would, in effect, connect New Orleans to Canada & we would be sitting on the line.

For NWA to demand that the poor counties in-between raise their own revenue to build it through their districts is very short-sighted, if fact it would never happen.

For the record, when most Arkansans hear NWA complaining about not getting their share, it usually falls on deaf ears. The rest of the state has the distinct feeling that when it comes to most appropriations, NWA is the favorite son & everywhere else is treated like the red-headed stepchild.

11:41 AM, September 09, 2007  
Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

I don't think she wants anymore than that- maybe just this one project.

I will say that when 50% of our state highways see only 8% of the traffic then they should not be state highways- those are county roads for local folks and should be maintained that way. Of course, a greater share of highway dollars would have to be sent straight to the counties and cities to make that work.

It is also my view that building highways to initiate "economic development" is a mis-allocation of resources. There has to be something in those towns for people to go TO. NWA did not get great businesses because they had better highways, they got better highways because they had great businesses. JB Hunt, Tyson Foods, Jones Truck Lines, and Wal Mart were all in place BEFORE the new highway was built. Until then, the roads in NWA were crazy bad. Build something in a town that people want to get to, and the roads will happen.

I guess I am a contrarian about this as well as most things, but I am against building any new major highways so long as we have to borrow money for ROUTINE MAINTENANCE on the ones we have now. All of these politicians like to build highways, none of them seem to care as much about maintaining them, unless it can be done with the next generation's money by debt. When we can pay for routine maintenance with current budget, then it is time to talk about new highways.

Speaking of contrarian ways, if Texarkana gets a highway direct from New Orleans then the problems of New Orleans become the problems of Texarkana. There is a lot to be said for small town life. As NWA got more ties with Mexico, we got more of Mexico's problems. Believe me, you don't want that. Be careful what you wish for on that connectedness stuff.

Now as far as the rest of the state thinking NWA gets treated better, I guess you know that NWA feels like the rest of the state has been looting NWA for a while. And regardless of "feelings", there are facts to support that idea. You cannot dispute that NWA does not get out of the highway fund in proportion to what it contributes.

Another example is GIF money, a few key legislators from the south and east got the lion's share for decades. Finally, "The Brotherhood" formed and NWA senators joined with them in order to insist that the GIF money be divided EVENLY among districts. Even this short-changed the prosperous NW, which payed more than it's share of the taxes. Still, that only lasted a session or two. When the rest of the state found out NWA was going to get closer to even, they took it to court and only now has the whole concept of legislator-controlled GIF money been declared null and void.

Another example is what happened to Sen. Dave Bisbee. By traditional rules, he was in line for President Pro-tem of the Senate. What happened? The GOP legislators from the rest of the state ganged-up with the ole-boy Democratic faction to deny him the post by a single vote. The NWA legislators were shived by their own party.

It is strange how perspective differs. Sometimes it is better to focus on the things that unite us.

5:08 PM, September 09, 2007  
Blogger Mark said...

I drive most of the state on a regular basis, most of that between Central Arkansas and NW Arkansas.

NW Arkansas is not in crisis for roads except on a local level.

I-40 between Little Rock and Memphis is an absolute nightmare and more lanes won't solve the problem. What is required is new construction that will divert some of the traffic.

My ranking of needed new construction.
1. US67 needs to be completed as I-30 all the way to south of St. Louis to divert traffic off of I-40.
2. I-540 needs to tie to I-30 around Texarkana or be a part of the proposed I-29 from Kansas City
3. i-69 needs to get built.
4. The very forward thinking idea of building I-29 parallel to I-540 from the Missouri border to south of Fayetteville to give future relief for traffic.

8:35 AM, September 11, 2007  

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