A federal judge’s decision to let the Arkansas Department of Transportation continue to spend tens of millions on an unnecessary wider concrete I-30 freeway gulch through Little Rock is food for thought on the highway sales tax increase the legislature put on the ballot Nov. 3.
Voters will be asked to approve a revolutionary permanent half-cent sales tax solely for highways. It will succeed a 10-year half-cent tax that was supposed to pay for a four-lane highway program all over Arkansas and expire in 2022. (It could have expired earlier had it not been crafted to prevent early repayment of bonds, thus preserving lagniappe for the freeway builders.)
It DID contribute to the $650 million down payments on Little Rock’s concrete gulch, plus other interstate work in the metro Little Rock area. The new permanent tax increase to take effect in 2023 is necessary to come up with another roughly $350 million for the full I-30 shebang (which will in turn create new and unfunded congestion on connecting highways throughout the region).
What’s another $350 million you say?
Well, there’s this. Currently, a half-cent sales tax produces a little less than $300 million a year. But of that new money, 30 percent, or about $86 million would go to cities and counties. That leaves $205 million a year for the state. But wait: the highway department says about three-quarters of the money will go to maintenance, leaving only about a quarter, $50 million or so, for new construction.
The 30 Crossing gulch will eat $50 million right up, seven times over. And then there’s the Northwest Arkansas Council, the fat cat business lobby, which is urging voters in Republican land to vote for THIS tax increase. They write that it will pay for some $280 million in highway projects needed in WaltonTysonHuntlandia — a four-lane to the Northwest Arkansas airport; a Springdale bypass, and improvements to Highway 112 between Bentonville and Fayetteville.
Little Rock’s gulch and those three projects alone will eat up nearly 13 years of tax receipts dedicated to new construction. I’m guessing some other parts of the state might like a little money, too. Some of them might have even been shorted in the 10-year highway program thanks to the orgy of freeway spending in Little Rock.
A Koch-backed political lobby said it right in forming an opposition group to this tax increase. Arkansas has one of the worst sales tax burdens in the country, with disproportionate harm to poor people. The highway department is unaccountable to the legislature or anyone else (except business titans). It has also been historically deficient in forward-thinking about changing transportation needs. It is also too beholden to the trucking lobby and businesses that depend on trucks. They don’t pay their share for the constant rebuilding of freeways cratered by big rigs. The highway geniuses’ idea of smart policy is to sock a $200 license fee on an electric car (10,000 of which do the road damage of a single 18-wheeler, without air pollution).
Good planners? The highway geniuses missed the cost of the I-30 Gulch by a mere $350 million. (And that doesn’t count the collateral damage on Little Rock streets that the city will have to bear.) I’d also wager $1 billion won’t get it done.
When the 30 Gulch is completed, between changes in working habits thanks to the pandemic and changing living choices, the existing minimal congestion for brief periods during rush hours might prove even less of an issue than Judge James Moody thinks.
I’d like to use this opportunity to mention again that Scott Bennett, the highway boss when the 30 Gulch was conceived, took a private industry job with a company that has a key role in the billion-dollar project. Just a coincidence. He says his work in marketing for the company is in other states.