Columns » John Brummett

A highway tax increase? Seriously?

Old ideas die hard in a static culture.

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That is surely why House Speaker-designate Robert Moore of Arkansas City, a noble good ol' boy with a rich family history in the state's rural-dominated political culture, continues to talk about a highway tax program for this legislative session now upon us.

The tired political thinking to which I refer is that we can attract economic development to rural Arkansas with shiny new highways.

This theory is that you can take two towns tragically beset with decayed economies and untrained and under-educated work forces, and, if only you will build a good road between them, both communities will inevitably flourish.

We have thought this kind of thing for so long, and spent so much money not to follow traffic patterns but to oblige the political influence of our rural culture, that we surely would have reaped our bonanza by now if the thinking was even remotely credible.

Quite to the contrary, though: The state's economy exploded over these recent decades in one compacted space, a small and remote place, that being the extreme Northwest corner. And it had the worst roads.

The first economic explosion of this region occurred at a time when the main way to get there from Little Rock was to leave the interstate highway at Alma to venture north over a steep, curvaceous, two-lane mountain pass decorated with an entry sign warning you of how many motorists had been killed along the roadway lately. Every few miles you came upon an inclined sand pit for the runaway big rig bearing down hard on you from behind.

In this remote mountain corner with substandard and dangerous roads, a national trucking giant sprang up.

You need local initiative, local investment, local know-how and a thriving institution of higher learning. And you need luck. You can build the shiny new road after there are enough drivers to demand it.

This is not unlike school consolidation. Spending on unused roads between unpopulated places is about as cost-efficient as spending on tiny high schools without sufficient numbers of students to put on a physics class. And trying to change this habit is equally perilous as a political undertaking.

As always, our constitutionally independent Highway Commission, when not defending its abundance of state cars for office workers, pleads for a tax program to increase the cash flow to the status quo.

Spend more, not smarter — that is the mantra.

Gov. Mike Beebe, more practical than most, is passive on the notion. But speaker-designate Moore told a press gathering last week that he is interested in seeing what he might be able to fashion in the way of this much-needed highway tax program.

Most of the reaction to Moore's pronouncement has been negative, but only in a political context. That is to say people have declared that the will for any tax increase simply does not exist amid this nascent tea party madness.

But the negative reaction ought to be substantive as well.

It is true that our highway-user revenues sources are declining. But we should not take that to mean that we simply need to hit motorists for higher rates.

Instead we should consider our highway department's archaic policies and practices, both in a micro sense for office employee cars and in a macro sense to set a new priority: Spend for highways along routes that get traveled, not on those that someday might.

Moore will be a good House leader and we are fortunate to have his experienced and steady hand amid this volatile turnover. But he needs to look somewhere else, in a direction more visionary and less stale, for his signature issue.

P.S. — A compromise might be to fashion higher highway taxes as part of a bond program that could be referred to the voters.

Alas, you do not pass one of those by telling vast regions of the state that they will not receive benefits. You pass one of those with pretty maps with colored highlights, vivid and evenly distributed, showing people the four-lane highways coming to them.

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