JOE QUINN – SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
In Northwest Arkansas, it’s common to hear people mutter, “Traffic is really bad today.”
It’s not unusual for people to delay their departure from work to drive at off-peak hours. The inability of the local infrastructure to keep up with population growth sometimes is as much of a topic as the Razorback offense.
In the Arkansas Delta, farmers operating heavy equipment know which country roads can’t handle a lot of weight. Driving the “long way around” to avoid crumbling roads makes it more difficult for farm families to bring product to market.
From the Delta to the Ozarks, there are 4,307 bridges maintained by counties, and 12 percent of them are unable to handle the weight of a fully loaded school bus. If you have a child riding a bus in a rural area, you should be thinking about that number.
Other numbers to think about: 362 county bridges are structurally deficient and 812 are functionally obsolete.
Arkansas has the 12th largest highway system in the country, but we rank 43rd nationally in what is spent to maintain roads. The lack of adequate funding affects everyone from the farmer, to the bus driver, to the parent hustling to pick their kids up at school and get them to baseball practice.
The gap between what we spend and what we need to spend is getting wider each year. Some people think this only matters to industries that profit from highway construction, or the Department of Transportation that manages all this. The reality is the quality of roads should matter to anyone who drives a car, a school bus, a truck, or a minivan in a car pool.
At a time when only 18 percent of Arkansas roads are in “good” condition, more than 70 percent of the money we spend to improve roads comes from consumption-based fuel-tax revenues. As people drive less and buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, we are all using less fuel. That’s fundamentally a good thing, but it also means declining revenue for roads.
Overlaying this discussion is the fact that 54 percent of our highway funding comes from federal money that is likely to decrease in coming years.
Good roads help business, tourism, and local communities. When I drive Interstate 49 on a beautiful fall afternoon, it’s easy to think how that road turned a group of communities into a cohesive and thriving region. When I drive the new U.S. 70 into Hot Springs I’m amazed at how a narrow, winding, slightly dangerous road has been replaced with a beautifully designed, easy-to-drive stretch of highway.
These two roads are a reminder how a high-quality, thoughtfully designed stretch of road in any region pulls together communities in a way that makes life easier for families, business, and tourism.
Was building those roads good for construction, asphalt, and pavement companies? Sure, it was. Did building the highways create construction jobs? Absolutely.
But the larger issue is these roads created a regional economic backbone. We don’t want to be ranked 43rd nationally on what we spend on roads when there are so many clear examples of why highways change quality of life.
In the next few months, the statewide conversation about highway funding will deepen. It will be a major topic during the legislative session in January.
The more we delay finding adequate funding to maintain our rural roads and highways, the further behind we fall, and the harder it will be to address expensive problems later. It’s important we try to find additional funding for our crumbling infrastructure now.
Please pay attention in the months ahead as the highway funding discussion intensifies. It’s about much more than laying concrete or asphalt, it’s about what kind of state we want to leave our grandchildren.
Joe Quinn is executive director of the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation.