Columns » John Brummett

What are highways for, anyway?

Whether one favors roads ought to depend on which roads.



House Speaker Robert Moore was explaining the other day why he wants higher taxes for highways.

"No one wants to get on the stump and say, 'I'm against roads, I'm against highways,' " he said. "If we don't have the courage to fund them, that's what we're saying."

Actually, whether one favors roads ought to depend on which roads. In the way that one can be both for schools and for school consolidation, one can be for highways, but not every highway.

Our heritage in Arkansas is to look on a state highway system as monolithic and utopian. We leave particulars to five constitutionally independent commissioners representing antiquated districts weighted toward the declining rural sections of the state. 

Conventional thinking is that we need four lanes going every which way and that this will serve economic development and tourism in underdeveloped or declining areas.  

But if that were so, then Northwest Arkansas might never have grown, so under-served was it by good highways as recently as two decades go. Jonesboro, still an inconvenient meander from Little Rock, might not have emerged, alone in eastern Arkansas, as a growth center.

Pine Bluff would have been spurred by the four-lane to Little Rock. Marion, bisected by busy cross-country interstate highways, 40 and 55, would have landed that Toyota plant.

Today's more appropriate thinking is that, since more than 40 percent of the people now live in six counties, the need for roads is greater in those places, failing mass transit.

We should not indulge gridlock where people live so that there will be four lanes where people don't.

Roads are mostly utilities, not lures. 

A good educational system, a good worth ethic, a trained or trainable work force, talented entrepreneurial spirit, luck — those punch the tickets for economic growth.

As for tourism: The best tourist travel in Tuscany is along the winding back roads through the vineyards and the olive groves, not on the superhighway.

So we should not raise highway taxes as long as the Highway Department spends our money inequitably, inefficiently and for the Arkansas of yesteryear. 

Nor should we raise highway taxes as long as the Highway Department sits on $45 million to replace the Broadway Bridge connecting downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.

That bridge is not unsafe. If it were, the Highway Department would be guilty of attempted murder every time it opens the bridge for traffic, which is all the time.

Last week I spoke to a group of young civic leaders from Sebastian and Crawford Counties who were visiting Little Rock for a day. We were in the back room of the Old State House with a view of the Broadway Bridge. 

These western Arkansans seemed none too thrilled as I told about the escrowing of $45 million at the Highway Department to replace the bridge, that one with all those cars breezing over it, while western Arkansas remains stymied in getting Interstate 49 completed south of Fort Smith through Texarkana. 

Actually, though, a new I-49 running along the western edge of Arkansas connecting Louisiana and Missouri would mainly provide a quicker way for big trucks to plow right through us as they haul cargo generated from some other state to a destination in yet another state. 

Look at all that traffic along Interstate 40 through the Delta of eastern Arkansas. How is that working for economic development?

Most likely this legislature, if it addresses highway taxes at all, will punt the issue to the voters in the form of a referendum on a proposed tax increase tied to bonds. But to stand a chance of voter passage, the Highway Commission will have to promise that proceeds will be equally distributed to all regions. 

After all, nearly 60 percent of the people still live in 69 of the 75 counties. Good luck telling those people that you need them to vote for higher taxes so you can direct most of the money to Pulaski, Faulkner, Saline, Washington and Benton Counties.

The answer is for the Highway Commission to put its constitutional independence to positive use and to reform and modernize in the interests of accountability and efficiency.

Meantime, to advocate simply for roads is like going to to the deli and asking simply for a sandwich, any sandwich.

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