Keeping Politics off Arkansas’s Highways
By Deborah Horn
There are political voices in Arkansas who have periodically suggested abolishing or rewriting the 70-year-old Mack-Blackwell Amendment. During the 2023 Legislative Session, Senate Joint Resolutions 7 and 15 were introduced that would give legislators more of a say in highway business and where commissioners are appointed from. These died in committee.
During an Arkansas Good Roads Foundation speech late in his final term, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson spoke of the need to protect Mack- Blackwell. Some people in Arkansas believe that doing away with it would put politics back into highway building decisions, changing an efficient system that has served the test of time.
This wasn’t the first time elected officials tried to gain more control over ARDOT’s multi-million-dollar budget. Since 2009, every regular legislative session has seen at least one bill or resolution filed to give legislators control over ARDOT’s project selection, project funding, or commissioner appointment. So far, no legislation has passed, but supporters of the amendment believe the effort to repeal Mack- Blackwell is not going away.
Long Term Decision Making
In the early 2000s, Jessica Clanton decided to pursue a physics degree at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville; however, the Harrison resident didn’t have the choice to live on campus. She was married with four young children and driving was her only option. She drove narrow two-lane roads, including US Highway 65 and 412 to state Highway 45; she says the passing lanes were short and too far between. Rumble strips didn’t exist and instead of gently sloping shoulders, many were five-inch drop-offs.
Her 88-mile drive one-way across curvy Ozark roads was slowed by other drivers, road construction, and occasional accidents. Too often, the two hours stretched into three. She earned an undergraduate and master’s degree in physics and later said, “I drove the equivalent of more than four times around the world. It was a difficult drive…but I had to do what I had to do.”
Clanton still drives US Hwy 412 but heads east to the Arkansas State University at Mountain Home where she’s a full-time instructor, and she makes the occasional trip to Fayetteville. With the Huntsville bypass and the 412 widening and additional passing lanes, she said, “These days the trip takes an hourfifteen or less. It’s quicker and much safer.”
The highway improvements that changed life for Clanton were in the planning stage for decades. But long-term projects like this have been able to continue through administration changes because Mack- Blackwell has in general protected the work from being redirected by changing political leadership and majorities.
Amendment 42 to the state’s Constitution was proposed by two state senators, Y.M. Mack and Lawrence Blackwell, and ratified by voters by a three to one margin before going into effect in 1953. It immediately gave the Highway Commission autonomy and control over its own budget and replaced a system “of shocking waste, extravagance and overall inefficiency” that “hamstrung any attempt toward a sound and efficient highway program,” according to a 1951 Highway Audit Commission report under then Governor Sid McMath.
With the new amendment in effect, gone were the days of appointees changing with every new administration; instead, a five-person commission was established. The 10-year, staggered appointments were considered at-large, but no two members could be from the same congressional district.
Years later, the highway commission seats remain highly sought-after positions, with Democrats and Republicans often serving on the same commission. Alec Farmer, its current Chairman, said, “When the oath of office is completed…We strive to put politics aside and put the best interests of the state ahead of our own community or region.”
“Importantly, when looking at the big picture, projects don’t just benefit one area of the state, but the whole state through better connectivity, efficiency and safety,” Farmer said.
Under the terms of Amendment 42, the Arkansas Highway Commission wouldn’t run the highway department but appoint a director “to run the day-to-day.” These measures ensured that short-term political gain would take a backseat. ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor says all of that could change if the amendment were to be repealed, “Arkansas has a lot to lose.”
“Arkansas was the first to finish its portion of the country’s interstate system, and since then, great progress has been made to expand and improve our state highway’s system such as the completion of Interstate 49 between Alma and the Missouri Line, the Hot Springs Bypass, Highway 65, Highway 167, Highway 67 between North Little Rock and Walnut Ridge, just to name a few,” Tudor said.
Dave G. Parker, ARDOT Public Information Officer, said, “This allows commission members to take the long view…This consistency allows ARDOT to plan long-range projects that build upon the existing roadway system.”
Protecting the Planning Process
Long term, nonpolitical decision making has been far-reaching, creating better jobs and commercial development as well as giving a boost to the state’s two biggest economic drivers: agriculture and tourism. Mark R. Hayes, Arkansas Municipal League Executive Director, said, “It took time and planning. It wasn’t an overnight success.”
Mack-Blackwell continues to put clear budget and policy decisions ahead of political debate. This approach helps guarantee that highway revenue is well spent. According to ARDOT, “The cost to construct and improve I-49 from Alma to the Missouri state line in today’s dollars was about $3.2 billion.” That doesn’t include the cost of the other highways in and around the area, Parker said.
Without an interconnected roadway system, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art might not have landed in Bentonville and Neighbor’s Mill Bakery & Cafe on the improved US Hwy 65 in Harrison might not be a must-eat destination. They recently opened a second bakery in Rogers. History shows that the right kind of feeder roads create economic prosperity. As Mark Hayes says, “The state’s 499 cities have benefited.”
For example, the $3 billion United States Steel Corporation plant under construction will create 900 jobs, and Envirotech Vehicles started production of its electric commercial vans this spring. Both are in Osceola and together will employ about 1,700. In March, the military announced it was moving its 425th Fighter Squadron to Fort Smith’s Ebbing Air National Guard Base. That means new primary and secondary businesses springing up to serve the 900 additional military personnel and their families.
Central Arkansas is also benefiting. Near the Interstate 40 and 440 interchange, companies like Caterpillar Inc., Ben E. Keith, Safeway Foods, Central Commerce Center, and Amazon built distribution centers. The area is popular because it is close to the airport, river, rail, and road transportation options.
Westrock Coffee Company just announced a $100 million expansion in Conway, and after the recent road upgrades and construction of US Highway 425 in and around Monticello, there’s plenty of new growth such as the Take 5 Car Wash, Western Sizzlin, storage units and more.
All this growth and job creation in different regions of the state would not happen without a cohesive longterm ARDOT strategy. Non-political decision-making matters more than ever with $3.8 billion in additional federal funding coming to Arkansas. Conversations that used to be about identifying funding for a project are now about prioritizing projects where the funding is currently available. All of this is good for the state on multiple levels.
The fast-growing city of White Hall in Southeast Arkansas is getting a new 76-bed hospital, located just off I-530, and with improvements to I-530 and widening of US 65 south, the once three-hour trip from Little Rock to McGee now takes less than two hours.
Hayes points out that running a large trade association often takes him across the state, and he’s seen a substantial reduction in driving times over the last decade. It’s also made it easier to visit family and for his own children to pursue a college education. From large manufacturing operations to small mom-and-pop shops, Hayes said, “None of this would have occurred without the foresight and craftsmanship of the authors of the Mack-Blackwell Amendment. They understand what was lacking and I love the fact that people had a great vision that went beyond that moment and politics. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Jessica Clanton wasn’t the only student who benefited from Arkansas’s improved road system. When Lorie Tudor decided to get a civil engineering degree, she opted to attend classes at the University of Memphis instead of UA at Fayetteville. At that time, the “Pig Trail” was narrow and so curvy that drivers met themselves coming and going, or so the old-timers said. For Tudor, Fayetteville wasn’t a drivable option, but Little Rock to Memphis was doable.
Tudor said, “A road can influence the important decisions that shape lives and affords opportunities, essentially rewriting personal destinies…It’s amazing how a road played such a large part in my own journey.”
For Tudor, providing Arkansans with the best roads possible isn’t just lip-service; she’s driven the backroads on her way to an education and a better life. The past 70 years have shown that planning for and building roads works best when politics are not driving the decisions.