Mineta Lobbies in AR for Highway Bill

Fri December 26, 2003 - West Edition

LITTLE ROCK (AP) U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta campaigned Dec. 15 for a $247-billion transportation spending bill against a backdrop of highway workers and orange construction barrels.

Speaking on an Interstate 30 overpass, Mineta said the six-year transportation spending bill pending in Congress should be approved so states can finish interstate improvement projects, such as those in Arkansas.

“We need it to expand Interstate 30. Just look at the construction. [The workers] are doing their part. Now they need Congress to do the same,” said Mineta, as Gov. Mike Huckabee listened nearby.

Mineta said approval of the bill would send $2.3 billion to Arkansas over the next six years, but it’s been held up in Congress because the Bush administration was resisting raising fuel taxes to pay for the plan.

“The federal highway bill is already late, causing headaches for Governor Huckabee and the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department,” Mineta said. “There’s too much riding on this bridge and our other roads and highways to have it jeopardized by gridlock in Washington.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-AR, said the Bush administration has only itself to blame for tax cuts in May that depleted resources that could have gone to highways. Ross said he offered an amendment that would have replaced dividend tax cuts with $1 billion for each congressional district for highway improvements, but it didn’t make it to a floor vote.

J.W. “Buddy” Benafield, chairman of the state Highway Commission, said the state can’t afford to wait for federal aid because it needs $7 billion more over the next 10 years than it can raise in revenues.

“I got the impression that at this point [Mineta] isn’t sure how the bill will pan out,” Benafield said. “I know the president is opposed to the gas tax increase. This commission has learned to try to live with what revenues we have.”

Mineta went to Fort Smith later in the day to address a priority project for Arkansas, the creation of new Interstate 49 to run north-south along the state’s western border. The $4.4-billion expansion would connect Kansas City, MO, with the port of New Orleans.

At Fort Smith, he appealed for help again.

“I wanted to see Congressman [John] Boozman because he’s a good supporter of the president,” Mineta said. “I wanted to convince him to press the rest of the Transportation Committee to pass this bill.”

Boozman, R-AR, would want earmarked $1.5 billion of the state’s $3.5 billion share of the reauthorization bill for I-49, spokesman Patrick Creamer said.

The route of I-49 between Shreveport and Lafayette, LA, has already been expanded to interstate standards, and Mineta said environmental impact studies and other preliminary steps were completed for expansion in Arkansas.

I-69 in south Arkansas, on the other hand, is “quite a ways behind,” Mineta said, as officials were still deciding on the route for the proposed Mexico-to-Indianapolis highway. I-69 already exists between Indianapolis and Port Huron, MI.

Both I-49 and I-69 would be crucial trucking routes between Latin America and Canada.

“Some people look at this overpass and see concrete. I see toys on the shelves at Wal-Mart, I see clothes on the racks at Dillard’s and I see roasted chickens on holiday tables, 15,000 a week transported by Tyson,” Mineta said at Little Rock.

Huckabee focused his comments on the paving and expansion projects nearing completion on I-30 and I-40. He joked that orange cones and barrels could have replaced the duck or diamond on the new collectible state quarter.

“You used to be able to buy a quart of milk in Memphis, drive on I-40 and it would be churned into butter by the time you got back to Little Rock. But now our interstate rehabilitation project will be finished on schedule and on budget, which is truly remarkable,” Huckabee said.