Columns » John Brummett

Arkansas highways — what a mess


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This is what happens when one of the nation's poorest states tries to maintain one of the nation's most expensive highway systems.

Now we have yet another so-called blue ribbon commission telling us that our transportation infrastructure in Arkansas is in trouble and that we must do something — the commission doesn't yet say what — to plug more money into it.

Get out a few state highway maps and place them side by side. Put Arkansas's road map next to, say, that of Wyoming, another rural state where the average worker drives relatively long distances to work.

You'll see that Arkansas's map has infinitely more little squiggly lines than most, those squiggly lines representing too-many roads running between too-many dots representing too-many places.

We remain largely a rural culture, a farm-to-market culture, or, in some cases, an anachronistic remnant thereof.

Wyoming is rural, too, but with more wide open spaces, meaning fewer towns and fewer routes to maintain between those towns.

Yes, you say, but Wyoming is an open-range state with fewer people and mountains between those people. But I'd say that the eastern section of Arkansas is farm fields with declining numbers of people between those fields in too many little towns. And I'd say that the southern section of Arkansas is pine tree fields with declining numbers of people between those fields in too many little towns.

Arkansas is 32nd in the nation in population but 12th in state highway miles, and those roadways in the state system carry 76 percent of our traffic.

One reason for that is that we have relatively poor and powerless local governments, city and county, and it has made sense over the years to bring many of our local roads into the state system.

Even at that, though, we're 10th in the country in county road mileage. We just like to spread ourselves thin in lots of small, remote settlements. It's our heritage; it's why people came here in the first place.

In some ways, then, our communities and roads in Arkansas are like our schools. That is to say we need consolidation.

A consultant recommended a year or two ago that the way to save the Delta region of eastern Arkansas is to redirect the dwindling population into larger clumps in the larger towns, those "worth saving" with "critical mass" and capable of offering a "quality of place."

It's absolutely right. I just don't know how you possibly go about it.

And the truth of the matter is that I'm just getting started about what's wrong with our state highway system.

There's our matter of highway financing, which is almost wholly dependent on the strict consumption of a per-gallon tax on gasoline, which becomes a dwindling source when reasonable people drive less because gasoline prices are soaring.

We generated less in 2009 in gasoline tax revenue in Arkansas than was produced in any year since 2003. But highway repair costs aren't going down.

Then there's the past-its-prime way we govern highways. We grant our Highway Commission constitutional independence, meaning elected officials aren't supposed to be able to play politics with highway money or lean on the insulated highway commissioners.

That leaves the politics-playing to the commissioners themselves, who, by the inertia of long-standing commission policy, represent geographic regions based on old and outdated population patterns.

This gives declining rural areas in southern Arkansas more representation than the booming northwestern section. The premium is on geographic distribution rather than smart statewide strategy. Money doesn't follow the cars; it follows the commissioners.

Can these highways possibly be saved?

We can at least do better. We can add elasticity to the motor fuel tax, perhaps converting it to a "variable" rate that is indexed to highway construction costs or based, at least in part, on price as well as quantity, perhaps in a wholesale excise tax.

And we can spend the money we have in a way that better follows the traffic. But that will require a reformed Highway Commission, one element of which ought to be asking the people whether they want to approve a constitutional amendment undoing the one they passed 60 years ago making the commission independent.


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