Columns » John Brummett

The highway status quo

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Government too often advances an embedded status quo. We end up making only marginal changes in stagnant and flawed systems rather than achieving basic reforms.

Take highway funding in Arkansas, for example.

As a still-rural state of relatively sparse population encompassing expanses of farm and timber acreage, we have greater reliance on state highways than some larger states. Traditionally our main source of highway funding has been a per-gallon state tax on the gasoline and diesel fuel we pump into our vehicles.

If you drive more then you pay more. It's so sensible.

Except lately it hasn't been working. As a tax based wholly on consumption rather than prices, our pump tax collections have declined as prices have risen and gasoline consumption has gone sensibly down.

So here's what government does when it has no idea what to do or lacks the political will to undertake what it knows it ought to do: It appoints a blue ribbon commission to study the problem.

We now have such a blue ribbon panel in Arkansas on highway finance.

One of our more extremely conservative state legislators, Republican Rep. Mark Martin of Prairie Grove, did not get named as a member. But he is a free man and public servant, so he stopped by the inaugural meeting and commenced blogging about it … unhappily.

Two things displeased him.

One was that the blue ribbon commissioners accepted the need for additional highway funding, then went straight to talking about how to “sell” to the public whatever they eventually came up with.

Jumping to the sales pitch before you have a product did not appeal to the conservative instincts of Martin.

The second was that there was no hint of discussion about how we spend highway money already.

Martin thinks our existing system is badly flawed with each of the five powerfully independent highway commissioners representing, by commission policy, two of 10 wholly antiquated highway districts. He and other northwest Arkansas legislators believe these highway districts reflect a starkly different time, culture, commercial system and population pattern, and that they are perpetuated by political inertia.

While we remain predominately rural, we've seen a decided trend in the last couple of decades toward emerging metropolitan regions in central Arkansas and northwest Arkansas.

Because of this continued reliance on outdated regions, all of the five current highway commissioners serve highway districts that extend into the current 4th Congressional District in south Arkansas. But only one serves an area encompassing the boom area of northwest Arkansas.

Martin thinks northwest Arkansas gets treated unfairly because it has insufficient advocacy for heavy traffic on often-substandard roads while sleepy areas of the state have greater advocacy for lighter traffic on often-better roads.

Blue ribbon commissioners reply that the need is obvious and that they needn't waste time establishing it. They say that economic needs in sparsely populated rural areas demand suitably maintained roads for farm-to-market commerce.

Anyway, they say they weren't appointed to study highway spending, only highway revenue streams.

Gov. Mike Beebe campaigned in northwest Arkansas in 2006 by saying he believed highway money should follow cars. He now says, alas, that he's encountered resistance to that.

He enjoys votes in northwest Arkansas. But they're gravy. Votes in southern and eastern Arkansas — those are his mashed potatoes.

Is there any reason to expect real reform?

The best answer is that there is no political basis for that expectation. But, as it happens, there are lawyers who are quietly shopping a lawsuit that would allege that the Greater Little Rock and Fayetteville-to-Bentonville metropolitan regions are under-represented and unequally funded in regard to highways.

They're looking for plaintiffs to seek to require the Highway Commission to change the way it governs itself.

You could call that conservative judicial activism.

 

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