Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

TOP STORY >>Highway funds could run dry for area cities

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Unless Congress dramatically increases its highway funding or the next General Assembly authorizes regional groups to levy taxes and float highway bonds, drivers in central Arkansas are literally facing gridlock in an uncertain future, Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan, told members of the Transportation Advisory Council last week.

The TAC is one of the bodies that must complete Metro 2035, a long-range transportation plan, by 2010.

The rules have changed — most of us just don’t know it yet, he said.

McKenzie said it would take time for central Arkansas residents to realize that it’s probably going to be up to them to pay for new roads and highways and to patch and improve the old ones.

Over the next 10 years, the state Highway and Transportation Department has identified about $19.1 billion worth of needs, but only about $4.1 billion in anticipated revenue.

Even if the new Democratic controlled Congress wanted to raise taxes for the nation’s highways, President Bush is unlikely to sign off on a new tax, according to McKenzie’s assessment. That means that by default, the responsibility for funding road and highway repairs and construction will revert to states and metropolitan areas, McKenzie said.

Except the handful that have already taken action, every metropolitan area and state in the nation will be facing similar problems, according to McKenzie, who as the immediate past vice president of the National Association of Metropolitan Plan-ning Organizations, should know. He was the group’s top professional planner.

McKenzie said that with the interstate system completed, the federal government might opt to turn existing gasoline tax revenues back to the states and wash their hands of it.

If the past is an indicator, Congress won’t raise taxes to keep pace with inflation or increased demand and congestion, so the burden shifts back to the states, he said, even if Congress never passes a law expressly saying so.

“The Highway Trust Fund is on the verge of bankruptcy,” he said. “Major funding (in Congress) is two years late, illusionary and inadequate.”

As for erosion of the dollar, he noted that in 1977, $100 million would widen to five lanes 143 miles of rural highway.
Today that same $100 million would widen about 17 miles.

The General Assembly already has authorized creation of regional mobility authorities, and Metroplan hopes to organize one this year including Pulaski, Lonoke, Faulkner and Saline counties, according to Richard Mcgee, Metroplan deputy director.
McKenzie says the best hope for additional highway funding might be a $2 billion, 10-year bond paid for by either a 5-cent increase in gasoline taxes, a half- percent sales tax increase or a combination.

Then as people in certain areas want bypasses or new highways or roads constructed, they could take proposals to the voters.

Four immediate uncertainties face Arkansas transportation planners as they approach three years of required work on a new 25-year transportation plan for Pulaski, Lonoke, Saline and Faulkner counties.

Uncertainties include:

Whether or not the current federal highway plan will be reauthorized

What the state highway program will pay for and include

Whether or not the next General Assembly will authorize the new regional mobility Authorities to tax sales or gas

And what road-building restrictions may be imposed upon central Arkansas, which seems likely to exceed allowable ozone levels this summer.