Columns » John Brummett

Truckers and a new highway paradigm

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By itself, the trucking industry’s opposition to Gov. Mike Huckabee’s highway bond proposal never made sense. Clearly, the big truck lobby was up to something else.


No additional taxes were proposed on trucks or anybody. Bonds were to be paid back from a stream of federal revenue that was certain to flow, whether for debt service or pay-as-you-go.


Interstate highways provide the very lifeline of the trucking industry. Borrowing against future federal receipts would have provided the state Highway Commission a method to keep those vital freeways smooth and wide so that big rigs could cruise.


The trucking industry’s stated reason for opposition — that the proposal would have removed the people’s right to vote on highway spending — was nonsense. People don’t have the right now. Since 1953, the Highway Commission’s five members have had constitutional autonomy to spend highway money.


With the defeat of the bond proposal, the Highway Commission will spend federal aid as it receives it year to year — without input of the people.


So, what was the truckers’ deal?


A few years ago the Arkansas Trucking Association tried and failed to get the Legislature to refer a proposed constitutional amendment to elect highway commissioners. The stated reason was that highway money was not being spent wisely or accountably. Another reason might have been that the truckers could have used their political muscle to influence elections to a greater extent than they’ve been able to influence governors in the appointments of highway commissioners who became instantly insulated by constitutional independence.

 
On the day after the bonds failed by 60 percent to 40 percent, I asked Lane Kidd, president of the Trucking Association, if his group might have become so emboldened by the outcome that it would now resurrect the proposal to elect highway commissioners.
Kidd said that was a great question. Then he said that truckers’ only current agenda regarding Arkansas highway finance is to “change the paradigm.”


Oh, is that all?


Changing a paradigm means creating a new model. It means changing the system at its very core. It means skipping a tune-up and overhauling an engine.


Just how did the truckers wish to change the very paradigm of Arkansas highway funding?


Well, said Kidd, the process over the last few decades has been for the five highway commissioners to divvy up what’s available equally among themselves and the five geographical districts they represent. That, he said, had failed to address needs based on population growth and traffic counts. He pointed out that Northwest Arkansas had exploded economically in spite of a nonexistent transportation infrastructure and now finds itself crying for help while our highway commissioners keep slicing the pie into five equal and antiquated pieces.

 
He’s right that those five districts are out of date. They’re based on old congressional districts, since changed by population shifts to four.


“The people should rule,” Kidd said.


I suggested that if the truckers intend to redefine highway spending priorities and elevate public control, they must be preparing a constitutional amendment for voter consideration that would limit highway commissioners’ discretion by designating the order and criteria by which projects would be funded. Such an amendment would necessarily repeal the Mack-Blackwell Amendment of 1952, which grants the Highway Commission’s autonomy, and for which there’s long been broad, if not necessarily deep, public support.


If voters meant what they said Tuesday, then it would seem to follow that they’d want to repeal Mack-Blackwell.


“You’re jumping way out there on a constitutional amendment,” Kidd said. “We’re not that far yet. We don’t really know what that paradigm would be. What we need is for some smart people to sit around a table for three or four months and see what they come up with.”


If they come up with something that has dollars strictly following residents or vehicles, no amount of logic would prevent the kind of culture war pitting rural interests against metropolitan ones that we’ve seen in the public school debate. I’m not sure if even the big rigs are sufficiently fortified for that.

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