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Analysis: Roads Not High on Arkansas’s 2009 Agenda

Wed December 24, 2008 - Southeast Edition

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) Arkansas’ highways are going to take a back seat during next year’s legislative session.

A tight budget, a new source of revenue and the promise of a federal stimulus package have ensured there won’t be any room for talks about more money for the state’s highways when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January.

“There’s just really not an appetite to do anything’’ on highways, said Rep.-elect Jonathan Barnett, a highway commissioner who is leaving the panel to join the Legislature next year.

Unlike last year, when highway commissioners pressed legislators to put more money toward addressing $19 billion in needs over the next decade, members of the panel say they’re not looking to the General Assembly or Gov. Mike Beebe for a major highway package.

“At some point in time a road program will have to be considered,’’ said Dan Flowers, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. “We don’t think this session is the time.’’

Highways didn’t rate a mention in Beebe’s state-of-the-state address at the start of last year’s session, but highway advocates found plenty to cheer by the time the 86th General Assembly wrapped up. Beebe saw at least two parts of a highway plan approved by the Legislature, including setting aside $100 million of a state surplus for road improvements.

He also signed a bill that would allow the state to issue $575 million in bonds for highway improvements if approved by voters.

And more money will already be headed toward road needs starting Jan. 1, when an increase in the severance tax on natural gas approved this year in a special session takes effect. Ninety-five percent of the money raised by the tax will go to highways.

State officials have projected that the tax will eventually raise $100 million a year, but state highway officials acknowledge that revenues may be lower because it’s tied to the price of natural gas — which has been falling.

“With the price of natural gas, it’s probably not going to be as much as anticipated but that’ll change and that’ll vary,’’ Beebe said in an interview.

The governor and highways officials, for now, are pinning their hope on a federal stimulus package aimed at helping state highways such as those in Arkansas. Arkansas has 130 projects totaling $1.12 billion ready to go if Congress offers $64.3 billion in road improvements as part of an economic aid plan.

The spending is a priority for President-elect Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders, who say they hope to have it ready for the new president to sign when he takes office Jan. 20.

“If that occurs, then our highway department will have a number of things they need to do, because they’ll probably be in charge of…implementing that,’’ Beebe said.

Another possibility for more road money is a bond issue. Though he said this year he’d likely ask voters in 2010 to approve another bond program to pay for road improvements, Beebe said that calling a bond election anytime soon would be a problem because of the uncertain economy.

“That is problematic. ... We want to wait and see what Obama does with the stimulus package first,’’ Beebe said.

Voters in June 1999 approved a five-year $1 billion interstate highway reconstruction plan to fix 372 mi. of the state’s 589-mi. interstate highway system.

Asking voters to back another bond package in the middle of a recession probably wouldn’t be a wise move politically.

“We won’t even contemplate that right now. The public’s opinion would be negative against any bond issue at this point,’’ said Carl Rosenbaum, the highway commission’s chairman.

The lack of new funding options at the state level doesn’t leave highways out of any discussion next session. Rep. Donna Hutchinson has filed legislation that would require the department to provide detailed reports on the state’s roads each year.

Barnett and incoming House Speaker Robbie Wills say the upcoming session could also give lawmakers a chance to lay the groundwork for future discussions on highway funding.

“What I want to do is use this session coming up to set up a study on how we’re going to address highway funding in the future. Arkansas is one of a number of states where our revenues are declining or staying static,’’ said Wills, D-Conway. “It’s simply not feasible and practical and sustainable for us to fund roads the way we do.’’

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