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Highway Commission Mulls Tolls, Local Money to Help Construction

Thu August 21, 2003 - West Edition
CEG



LITTLE ROCK, AR (AP) Arkansas highway commissioners say they must set priorities for the next decade now because federal money is tighter and the state’s needs are greater, particularly in fast-growing northwest Arkansas.

Commissioners may pitch toll roads and local financing programs as ways to fund $15.1 billion in highway needs over 10 years.

The commission met Tuesday, the second meeting since they discussed the long-term needs this summer. The state is working off a major 1991 highway maintenance and development plan, which runs through 2006.

Jonathan Barnett of Siloam Springs, northwest Arkansas’ commissioner, suggested the commission take its case to the public and show where toll roads are feasible.

A study has shown a new bypass around Bella Vista, a popular retirement community near the booming Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, would be feasible and receive popular support.

The federal government committed $4.3 billion to that project, another bypass a few miles south in Springdale, the conversion of U.S. 63 into a limited-access connector from Jonesboro to Interstate 55 and a future Interstate 69 in southern Arkansas.

But that leaves thousands of miles of state-run roads unfunded, for maintenance or expansion. Barnett suggested the commission ask local communities to pursue bond issues or partnership programs with the state to help pay for lower-priority projects.

He also said the state could give up some highways. Arkansas has 8,447 miles of state-controlled highways, ranking 12th in the nation and ahead of California, but is 41st in revenue to pay for maintenance and construction.

Commissioners agreed they were in shape to present a specific plan early next year. Unlike construction programs in 1985 and 1991, the commission is developing a plan before receiving the money it needs and is setting priorities early.

After the commission meeting, central Arkansas commissioner Carl Rosenbaum of Little Rock received some guidance on the capital region’s priorities in a meeting with U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

They agreed their focus should include: Completing the northern interstate bypass around Little Rock by extending Interstate 440 from Jacksonville to the Camp Robinson area of North Little Rock; reducing gridlock at the Interstate 430 and Interstate 630 interchange; improving the Dixon Road exit on Interstate 530 south of Little Rock; and expanding the northeasterly spoke, U.S. 67/167, to six lanes.

Some issues remain unresolved, however.

During the commission meeting, commissioner R. Madison Murphy of El Dorado, who represents southern Arkansas, warned the panel shouldn’t set priorities solely on traffic volume.

The national standard is that rural roads that handle more than 9,000 vehicles a day should have at least four lanes, but Murphy said the commission must consider it might hold back some areas by not paving the way to more traffic.

"El Dorado is the only major city in the state without a four-lane connector to the interstate system, which is No. 1 on the list [for prospective new businesses] in site selection,"he said.

Prissy Hickerson of Texarkana, the commission’s vice chairman, said priorities must be clear because residents and their elected officials tend to be parochial about highway needs.

Chairman J.W. "Buddy’ Benafield of Hickory Plains noted that the commission could do a better job of amending plans when needs change. He said the commission’s hands are often tied by specifically earmarked federal funding.

For example, Congress gave the state Highway Department $100 million to build a new route from Pine Bluff to Monticello as an eventual connector to the future Interstate 69 while needed construction on heavily traveled roads in the same area dragged.

Arkansas is wrapping up a $987 million interstate reconstruction project. It raised the diesel tax and pledged some federal interstate maintenance funding to pay off bonds by 2014, but that will not affect the state’s ability to pay for the $15.1 billion in general highway needs, said Highway Department spokesman Randy Ort.