Richard H. Mays, attorneys for plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit challenging the sufficiency of the environmental impact statement for the billion-dollar 30 Crossing project to widen Interstate 30 through Little Rock, has written the Arkansas Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration demanding that work on the project stop until they can produce the required proof that financing exists for the work.
This follows the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling in a separate state lawsuit that the state could not spend money from a temporary sales tax passed in 2012 to pay for a major portion of the work because that money could only go to four-lane projects, not to widening existing six-lane freeways. That money was expected to provide more than $400 million toward a project now estimated near $1 billion and some of that money has been spent in work well underway. The Supreme Court sent the state case back for further proceedings in Judge Chip Welch’s court, where more questions will be raised about the financing and scope of the project in light of the ruling. The department did get voter approval Tuesday of Issue 1, which creates a new, permanent sales tax for highways. It will produce about $200 a million a year initially for the state, which has said at least some of that money will go to the I-30 project, though the tax increase was sold as support for maintenance work statewide. At issue, too, is if the state must come up with the money to restore to the four-lane highway fund on a $90 million widening of I-630 already completed. It also relied illegally on the temporary sales tax money.
Mays notes, too, a new wrinkle. An I-30 widening project underway in Saline County likely doesn’t qualify for the Amendment 91 money it is using either as a widening of an existing freeway.
Mays wrote that the 30 Crossing project and Saline County work were authorized by the Metroplan transportation plan and federal law requires that projects be included in such plans only if full funding can be reasonably anticipated. Amendment 91 money is no longer available. He concluded:
I’ve asked the Department of Transportation for comment.
Update: the response:
“The response from ArDOT Director Lorie Tudor:
“Counsel for FHWA and ARDOT have received and are reviewing the letter. We have no further comment.”
And speaking of the new tax increase for highways approved by 55 percent of voters yesterday, a group that formed to oppose the project issued a statement on the results.
We’re disappointed that Arkansas voters approved Issue #1, which adds a permanent ½% sales tax for roads to our state Constitution,” Josh Silverstein, a spokesman for the No on Issue #1 Committee said today. “Arkansans already pay one of the highest combined sales taxes in the country at close to 10%. We believe those who use and damage our roads the most should pay their fair share,” Silverstein continued. The existing ½% sales tax for roads expires in mid- 2023. Voters and the Arkansas General Assembly would have had more than two years to develop a better plan and implement more equitable solutions for funding transportation if the Amendment had failed.
Last month the state Supreme Court ruled that ArDOT was illegally poised to spend a significant portion of the current sales tax revenue on the 30 Crossing project in Little Rock. In 2012, a temporary sales tax was approved by voters for four-lane road improvements only.
For at least five years, ARDOT has illegally spent a portion of those sales tax dollars planning and designing the widening of a seven-mile stretch of the I-30 freeway and Arkansas River bridge between Little Rock and North Little Rock to ten lanes at the staggering cost of nearly $1B.
ArDOT’s improper expenditures on I-30 and I-630 widening greatly reduced the amount of sales tax money available to upgrade highways and arterials to 4-lanes. That was the intent envisioned by taxpayers in 2012 to enhance economic opportunities and reduce congestion across the state. ArDOT’s extravagant and profligate spending on freeway widening in Pulaski County underlines the need for more accountability from this agency, not less.
Rep. Denise Ennett, a leader in the fight against Issue #1, said, “Arkansans deserve better. We deserve a state highway department that sees the value of investing in arterial roads, as well as pursuing multi-modal forms of transportation like mass transit and bicycle infrastructure. At the very least, Arkansans deserve a highway department that is accountable to the public and spends taxpayer dollars as promised.”
We’ll continue to demand accountability from the ArDOT and all other government agencies.
Our thanks go to the many community and environmental organizations that supported this fight, including: Arkansans for Prosperity, Arkansas Community Organizations, Arkansas Liberty Coalition, Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Audubon Arkansas, Garland County Tax Alliance, Northeast Arkansas Tea Party, Central Arkansas Sierra Club, Little Rock Downtown Neighborhood Association, rail labor (SMART Transportation Div. and the BLET), ATU Local 704, the Arkansas Libertarian Party and our many generous volunteers.