Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

TOP STORY >>Funds will run out for for improving area roads

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

The collapse in Minneapolis of the I-35 West bridge Aug. 1 into the Mississippi River could be both a harbinger of things to come and a metaphor for the future of central Arkansas and its infrastructure unless local communities chip in to pay for the expense of maintaining and expanding roads and services, according to Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie.


DERAIL CABOT GROWTH

In rapidly growing areas like Cabot, expansion will slow, then stop without a massive and unanticipated infusion of money, and bridges, highways, roads and water and sewer lines throughout the area could eventually disintegrate, choking off economic development as well as residential growth, McKenzie predicted.

“There’s no money to sustain new growth,” according to McKenzie.

Speaking to the Metroplan board of directors Wednesday, McKenzie said there are three kinds of money—free money, easy money and real money.

McKenzie told the board that the era of “free” highway money—that is, money from the federal government—is about over.
He said federal highway funding—known as SAFETEA-LU–is two years late, increased funding is illusionary and inadequate, the highway trust fund is in jeopardy and the federal role in funding highways and transportation is “increasingly unclear.”
SAFETEA-LU stands for Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act.


WAIT AT OUR PERIL

“We sit and wait on the federal government at our peril,” he warned. “If we want to continue to grow, we need to take care of our own infrastructure. Those who do will succeed in the future.”

McKenzie added that state money—he calls that “easy” money—is clearly insufficient.

He said the state Highway Department had conservatively identified $19.1 billion worth of needs over the next 10 years, but only $4.1 billion in anticipated funding.

That’s a $15.1 billion shortfall.

Just to fix and maintain existing roads and bridges will cost more than twice the $4.1 billion anticipated.


REAL MONEY

“Real” money, on the other hand, is money that a city or region can generate by taxing itself—money it could count on and use to solve its own problems.

He said former President Reagan did the nation a disservice when he popularized the idea you could get $1.50 worth of services for $1.

The Apian Way, a 500-mile road that sustained the Roman Empire, is still in use because it’s been maintained, according to McKenzie.

“Building a road is the cheap part,” he said. “Maintaining it is the expensive part.”

Much of this nation’s interstate bridge and highway system, begun when Eisenhower was president, is aging and crumbling.
“Stuff wears out,” McKenzie said.

“If we want to continue to grow, we have to take care of our own needs,” he said.

“I prefer not to go softly into the 21st Century and cede the future to China and India,” McKenzie said in a Thursday interview.

He said that two years ago, the General Assembly created Regional Mobility Authorities, and this year it empowered those authorities to propose regional sales or gasoline taxes to pay for highway expansion and maintenance and even mass transportation.

“Energy independence is a critical issue,” he added. “Even if we raised taxes on petroleum, we must develop solar, wind, tidal and geothermal power.”


FOUR FEDERAL SCENARIOS

McKenzie identified four scenarios for the next Transportation Equity Act—TEA. Those are:

Re-TEA—reauthorization as usual by Congress.

Post-TEA—fundamental reform.

Ideology—funding responsibility devolves to the states.

Green TEA—built around energy independence and global warming issues.

McKenzie said the trucking industry has proposed a tax to fund trucks-only roadways that would allow triple trailers and increased allowable axle weight.

The General Assembly authorized Regional Mobility Authorities in 2007. Central Arkansas could establish one this year and next year it could develop a program of projects.

Then, the 2009 General Assembly could authorize a taxing authority, including a one-half cent temporary sales tax to organized and the authority for a 5-cent local gas tax approved by a majority of the quorum. Another 5-cent per-gallon tax could be referred to the public for adoption.

McKenzie said he’d like to see a tax program passed in 2010.


SWAIM CONCERNED

“I have some concerns that when you try to pass a regional tax, it’s difficult because of adjoining cities and counties,” said Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim. “If we formed (a mobility authority) in central Arkansas, it would add to our gas or sales tax, but a lot of the traffic here comes from outside the area. I don’t think there is an easy solution.

“We need to continue to work with senators and congressmen to get as much federal funding as possible.”

Locally, a 5-cent per-gallon tax gasoline tax could raise $9.2 million in Pulaski County, $2.4 million in Faulkner, $1.5 million in Lonoke and $2.3 million in Saline.

A halfpenny dedicated sales tax in those counties would raise $32.5 million in Pulaski County, $5 million in Faulkner, $2.1 million in Lonoke and $3.8 million in Saline County.