Columns » John Brummett

Highways -- here we go again


Gov. Mike Huckabee has proclaimed his “three H’s,” seeking a catchy motif for his program for the coming legislative session. One of those “H’s” is, of course, health. He’s still on that kick after losing more than a third of himself. It’s good that he is. Arkansas is one of the nation’s unhealthiest states. We eat unwisely. We don’t get enough exercise. We sit to drive; we sit to watch TV. We smoke. We drink. We get pregnant as children. We don’t go to the doctor until we’re sick. This is not so much a policy or fiscal matter as a public awareness campaign. Another is higher education, which has been a low priority in recent years while the state pursued public school reform, meaning kindergarten through 12th grade. The governor recently proposed generous budget increases for public colleges and universities, keeping a promise and explaining that a better educated population also required top-down reform. What he didn’t do was explain where the money would come from, particularly in light of the still-unsettled court mandate to make public school facilities better, a matter he first tried, incredibly, to ignore. For his third “H,” the governor would like to take another step toward a better highway system, now that we’re well on our way to repairing our nation’s worst interstate highways under his billion-dollar bond program. Seldom passes a legislative session without discussion of how to raise money to improve our roads. It takes something like court-ordered school reform to push highways off the stage. That happened two years ago. Highways boast too strong a constituency in Arkansas to stay off the stage two sessions consecutively. Specifics are scant, but this we know: The Highway Commission has found that more than 90 percent of the state’s traffic occurs on half the state’s highways. It wants to emphasize that well-traveled half. Its goal is to turn into four-lane corridors all the highways that connect towns with populations of more than 5,000 with interstates or interstate-caliber highways. Example: U.S. 49 from Helena to Interstate 40 at Brinkley. Highway funding may not be as hard as it once was, now that we’ve taken a large bite of debt in the interstate reconstruction program. We learned that the state can generate a large pot of money by selling bonds based on federal turnback not in hand, but scheduled to come in over the next decade. We could do that again, depending on voter approval, for federal secondary roads, although those funds are not fully discretionary like interstate money. But Dan Flowers, director of the Highway Department, says the program the commission has in mind would cost at least a billion dollars and that generating that kind of money through 10-year bonds would require supplementing federal funds with new state funding. As ever, Flowers mentioned that maybe the Highway Department could get the portion of general revenue that comes from sales taxes on cars, tires and auto parts. But that’s not going to happen, and mustn’t. The general fund is already stretched thin for schools, prisons, colleges and Medicaid. That leaves the usual two ways to go — motor fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. Some of the more suspicious-minded observers of state government have suggested that the recently approved Amendment 2, permitting a bond issue without a vote for economic development, could be used for a highway bond program. But Mac Dodson, director of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, dismisses the idea out of hand, pointing out that the amendment permits bond issues without voter approval only for specific job-creating projects. As is his custom, Huckabee apparently will eschew difficult monetary detail. His spokesman and brother-in-law, Jim Harris, says the governor intends to offer a highway program, then present legislators with a “smorgasbord” of funding options from which to choose. It’s the way of the modern Republican executive, as I’ve been explaining lately. You propose popular and visionary programs and leave the dirty work to others.

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