By Joe Quinn, Guest Commentary, Northwest Arkansas Business Journal
Sometimes when I’m in Little Rock speaking with a legislator or stakeholder group about the need to upgrade Arkansas roads and bridges, I think about Rainbow Curve in Bentonville. More specifically, I think of it on a Friday night about 5:30 when a light rain is falling, traffic is backed up and getting anywhere seems to take forever.
That intersection at that moment is a reminder that Northwest Arkansas infrastructure needs are not keeping up with a steady population increase. The next time you hear the word “infrastructure” used in a funding discussion, put it in perspective by thinking of that messy little intersection at peak hours.
The good news is Northwest Arkansas keeps landing on lists of the best places to live or the fastest growing economy. The lists make great little Facebook posts that people share, and everyone expresses pride in our little corner of the world. But with an increasing population comes real challenges. Everyone applauds growth, but everyone does not always applaud the costs that come with it.
As our population grows, some of our roads deteriorate. Arkansas has reached a point where 82% of the roads in the state are designated to be in fair or poor shape. We have the nation’s 12th largest highway system but are just 43rd in spending.
In Little Rock, when roads and politics are used in the same sentence, it usually means legislators looking at where to find new highway funding. But the politics of roads in Northwest Arkansas are a little different. In several local mayoral and city council races this year, traffic congestion was the main issue. People are tired of a 15-minute drive home from work turning into 35 minutes in the car.
Too often this issue has been mainly framed in terms of the number of construction jobs created when a contractor is laying new asphalt. But we need to put a more human face on all of this to explain to voters why it’s worth all of us paying a little more to build what’s needed. We need to talk about the families struggling to pick up kids at school and get through traffic to the dentist. We need to talk about the intersections your family avoids because they are a mess on a busy Saturday morning.
As I travel the state, I often talk about Interstate 49. I don’t think there is a better example than I-49 of a road anywhere that truly changed a region. It’s well-designed, and it’s a beautiful ride on a fall afternoon. But the real value of I-49 is it connected a group of diverse and growing communities and made them a region. A real region where communities understand what is good for one community is good for all.
It’s the backbone of a part of the state where large and small businesses thrive, where school districts outperform the rest of the state, and where the number of tourists coming here increases monthly.
But Northwest Arkansas is also traditionally the most politically conservative region of the state. A place that was bright red on electoral maps long before people ever used the terms red and blue on television every night. That conservative streak makes people and politicians hesitant to ask anyone for tax increases for anything.
The General Assembly will convene in Little Rock in a few weeks, and funding for roads and bridges will be a priority discussion. Some legislators think we can find money for roads and bridges with sales tax increases, or by extending existing sales taxes, or by increasing registration fees. Others think the best play is to refer the issue to voters.
The big question is how much money is needed to build new roads and repair damaged roads? The legislature’s audit branch says that number is $478 million. That is money that would generate thousands of jobs and millions in related economic activity.
While this discussion plays out, it’s worth noting the motor fuel tax in Arkansas has not increased in 19 years. During that time, we have reached a point where only 12% of the bridges operated by counties can support a fully loaded school bus.
Although it’s probably going to take a mix of new and old funding sources to address this huge issue, I remain optimistic. Business leaders, elected officials and stakeholder groups seem to be aligning that now is the time to do something, so we are not 43rd on yet another national list.
The next time you try to navigate Rainbow Curve at rush hour, take a few minutes to think about all this. What “state and federal funding for infrastructure improvements” really means is decreasing the hassle factor in your daily driving. That’s worth a few of your tax dollars.
Joe Quinn of Rogers is executive director of the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation. He can be reached at 479-426-5931. The opinions expressed are those of the author.