ARDOT Could Pump Brakes on Highway Funding Plan until 2019

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The road to better highways in Arkansas is littered with speed bumps. 

The major traffic jam: money.  

"Everybody knows we have to have a higher level of investment for highways," said Scott Bennett, the director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT). 

Bennett told the Arkansas State Highway Commission Wednesday nearly 20 percent of highways are in good condition. In ten years, he projects nearly 30 percent.  

However, more roads will go to poor condition in that same time, from 24 to 28 percent. 

Bennett emphasized Arkansans could pay $100,000 per lane mile now for repairs or pay $1.5 million later for reconstruction. 

"It's an important issue to get right," he said. 

But how to fund it is where both sides accuse the other of being wrong. 

"I will vigorously oppose any plan that taps additional revenues from our general revenue stream," Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters Tuesday.

Gov. Hutchinson believes doing so would poke holes in the state budget for education, public safety and more. 

"More investment in things like education, health care and human services doesn't necessarily translate to success," Bennett said. "More investment in an infrastructure program directly and quickly relates to success." 

Bennett offered up nine different options Wednesday, including increases in diesel and gas taxes and registration fees, and new sales taxes, to meet the department's target of $400 million for new projects and improvements. 

But who ultimately decides: the people or the politicians?

"We believe that it would be most appropriate for the legislature to address this issue," Bennett said. "We think that's part of their responsbility."

"Where I'm drawing a line is if you're going to have any kind of tax increase or a fee increase or a diesel tax increase for highways then that ought to go to the voters to decide," Hutchinson said. 

Bennett argues it would cost nearly $3 million to run a highway funding campaign during the 2018 election, when major stakeholders, like the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, already plan to green light millions for tort reform. 

"A lot of the same people that are going to be asked to contribute to that measure are the same people that would need to contribute to a highway proposal," he said. 

Whether the people get to decide in November 2018 or politicians do their bidding for them in January 2019, Bennett said the revenue would start to flow by July 2019.

In the meantime, ARDOT decided what drives the most support for the complicated issue is showing both groups the best bang for their buck. Drivers can expect to see a list of projects a funding proposal could pay for by the end of the year. 

"They think we need to do more, they're willing to support more, and it's being able to find that sweet spot of what that more is and show them what you get out of it," he said. 

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