An eastbound semi-trailer truck rolls along Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis. Photo by Bill Paddack
By Noel Oman, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 13, 2019
The Arkansas Department of Transportation would spend nearly $500 million over 20 years to widen sections of Interstate 40 between North Little Rock and West Memphis, according to a draft document identifying 31 projects that would be built if voters approve making the half-percent sales tax permanent next year.
The department would spend another $350 million on Interstates 30 and 40 in central Arkansas over the same period from $3.6 billion that could be set aside to advance or complete capital and congestion relief projects over 20 years.
Other projects on the list include elements of Future Interstate 49 in west Arkansas and Future Interstate 69 in southeast Arkansas. The widening of U.S. 412 across north Arkansas and U.S. 82 across south Arkansas would largely be completed under the scenario the department is contemplating.
None of the projects is written in stone and could change if priorities change over time, especially over 20 years, said agency officials, who said the overall spending plan provides a framework to take to the public.
Members of the Arkansas Highway Commission got their first look at the potential projects at their regular meeting Wednesday in Little Rock as they work to put together a plan of how they will spend the total federal and state highway money that will be available over the next 20 years.
Agency officials described it as a second Connecting Arkansas Program, which is the name of the $1.8 billion road construction program that is funded in large part by a temporary half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2012.
“To me, this is a very good map,” said Robert Moore Jr., a member of the commission from Arkansas City. “I think we always have to keep in mind that we do not have enough money to do everything we want to do.
“More importantly, this is not going to be a regional vote to pass the half-cent sales tax. It would be a statewide vote. Of necessity, we have to make sure we’re looking at the needs of everyone in Arkansas. You’ve done a reasonable and equitable job of doing that. There may be some tweaks on there … but I think as a fundamental map, it’s very good.”
Scott Bennett, the agency director, told the commission he will likely make a similar presentation to Gov. Asa Hutchinson as well as House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and other key officials. He would like to have a final draft ready by September.
“It’s still got a lot of room for development for individual projects within the corridors,” he said. “But this will make a lot of progress. Does it do everything? No. We’re never going to get enough money to do everything. But this will be a very, very significant, major construction program.”
The construction program is but one element of the guide the commission adopted earlier Wednesday for the governor’s long-term highway funding plan.
It includes not only the department’s existing state and federal monies available for road construction — it averages $447 million annually — but nearly $100 million in increases in fuel taxes and some vehicle registration fees approved by legislators during the session.
If voters go along with lawmakers and approve a proposed constitutional amendment next year that would make permanent the half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2012, the move would net the department an additional $205 million annually for a total of $750 million annually, or $7.5 billion over 10 years.
About $3 billion would be spent over 10 years on what the agency calls pavement preservation, in which highways are repaved to extend their lives before more extensive rebuilding of the road is required. More than half of the state’s 16,000 miles of highways have pavement rated as D or F on an A to F grading scale.
The money would help keep the better-quality roads from declining in quality and begin reducing the number of poor-quality roads, Bennett said.
Another $1.1 billion would be spent on bridge replacement and preservation, which will focus on improving all subpar bridges. Almost 7% of the department’s nearly 7,300 bridges are rated in poor condition. A department study showed it would need to spend almost $110 million annually to upgrade them.
A total of $1 billion of the money would be spent on interstate maintenance over 10 years. And $500 million would be spent on safety improvements.
That leaves $1.8 billion over 10 years left for capital projects and congestion relief improvements that are modeled after the Connecting Arkansas Program projects. Or a total of $3.6 billion over 20 years.
“This is the beginning of continuing that progress from the current Connecting Arkansas Program,” Bennett said.
He also acknowledged the capital and congestion relief projects would be the most high-profile in the spending plan.
The most high-profile is Interstate 40 between North Little Rock and West Memphis. The four-lane route sees daily vehicle counts ranging up to 42,000 vehicles daily. In some spots, more than 60% of the vehicles are big trucks.
“I hear about that section a lot: ‘You need another lane in each direction,'” Bennett said. “A lot of it is because of the truck traffic. That’s about a $700 million or $800 million project. It wouldn’t do everything. But it would make a lot of progress.”
Same with U.S. 412, which would be widened between Huntsville and Black Rock at an estimated cost of $100 million. Or widening sections of U.S. 82 between Texarkana and Lake Village at an estimated cost of $160 million.
On Future I-49 and Future I-69, the department is focusing on areas that would draw traffic. They also would be built initially as two-lane routes rather than four-lane routes. Both proposed interstates are part of high-priority national corridors identified by Congress, but it has been left to individual states to work on parts that go through their states.
“What we want to do is if it won’t complete everything, we want to do something that is still going to make a difference and be useful,” Bennett said.
The $350 million for I-30 and I-40 in Little Rock and North Little Rock would be to pay for what couldn’t be finished under the $631.7 million to improve the 6.7-mile I-30 corridor through the downtowns of both cities. The estimated price tag is $1 billion.