During a public meeting Sept. 21, the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce hosted Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) Director Lorie Tudor, who spoke about why she wants Issue 1 on the November state ballot passed.
The proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution is part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's long-term Connecting Arkansas highway plan.
"Issue 1 simply asks voters to decide whether or not to continue the collection of a half-cent sales tax that has been in place since 2012 and is dedicated solely for improvements and maintenance of our state highways, county roads and city streets," Tudor explained.
She continued by saying that for the past few decades ARDOT has not had adequate funding to keep up with demand for road, highway and bridge upkeep and to meet the public's expectation.
Currently, ARDOT is funded primarily through a flat tax on fuel.
Tudor said in recent years, the goal has been to reduce fuel consumption by making vehicles more fuel efficient. This has meant there are more cars on the road, but ARDOT's revenue has been flat, while the cost of construction and maintenance has risen.
Tudor said that in 1998, ARDOT could overlay 200 lane miles with $10 million. In 2018, that amount went to only 90 miles at the same price.
To help address this funding shortfall, in 2012 a temporary half-cent sales tax was passed. Of those funds, 70 percent goes to ARDOT and 30 percent goes to cities and counties for their own road work and construction.
However, that tax is set to expire in June 2023. If the Issue 1 initiative is passed, though, the tax will continue indefinitely.
Tudor said, "We are well on our way to fulfilling the promises we made to voters in 2012."
All the promised Connecting Arkansas projects will either be begun or finished by the end of 2021.
If Issue 1 is passed, ARDOT has a 10-year Renew Arkansas Highways Program totaling $7.4 billion that includes pavement preservation, bridge improvements and preservation, interstate maintenance, capital and congestion relief and safety improvements.
If the issue fails, cities and counties will lose 30 percent of their road budgets each year, Tudor said.
In Saline County alone, there are plans for 18 projects spanning 145 mi. for a total cost of $167 million. If Arkansas voters don't approve the measure, though, the county would lose $1.1 million in transportation infrastructure funding each year.
Instead of maintaining and improving the road network, Tudor said ARDOT would just be managing the decline of the system. As construction costs go up, the agency will not be able to keep up with its needs. ARDOT may even have to close some roads and bridges to preserve them.
Tudor said this tax costs the average family $8 each month. Passing the issue will neither increase nor decrease the cost.
She emphasized it is not a new tax. Rather, Tudor said, "It is an extension of an existing tax."
The benefits of extending the tax, Tudor told her audience, are that good roads are safe roads, and that when an industry looks for somewhere to locate, the health of the area's roads and bridges help determine if they want to do business there and bring in jobs.
In addition, she added that with better roads, vehicles get less wear and tear, thus saving money for families.
"Arkansans are about to make one of the most important decisions they have ever made about Arkansas roads," Tudor said.
Among the projects in Tudor's home area of Saline County that would benefit from the passage of Issue 1 are:
- The Interstate 30 widening from Arkansas Highway 70 to Sevier Street, a Connecting Arkansas project with a $187 million price tag. It went to contract in 2018 and is expected to be finished in late 2022. When opened, it will encompass six lanes with five bridges repaired and three interchanges fixed
- Various projects are ongoing along AR 5. From Benton to Hot Springs Village, crews are busy resurfacing the road and a safety project to realign 10 curves and correct the elevation of 10 more is planned. In addition, AR 5 in Benton to Little Rock is being widened in stages. Part of that project is already funded, and the rest will require funds from this tax
- ARDOT also is looking at reconfiguring a ramp on Interstate 30 between Exits 117 and 118 to make access easier to the area around Tinseltown and the Benton Event Center.