The lawsuit that created a multi-million-dollar dilemma for the Arkansas Department of Transportation has been set for a hearing next week, as a letter filed yesterday by Circuit Judge Chip Welch indicates.
The entire state should be interested. This is the case in which the Arkansas Supreme Court overruled Welch and said the Amendment 91 temporary highway sales tax could only be used for four-lane projects, not projects such as the 10-lane 30 Crossing Project in Little Rock; the completed I-630 widening project in Little Rock, and the I-30 widening underway in Saline County.
Big money is at play. Nearly $500 million was expected from the sales tax money for the first phase of 30 Crossing, a $1.3 billion project. A new sales tax increase is expected to help, but that money doesn’t start flowing until 2023. What’s more, any money spent so far on 30 Crossing has to be restored to the four-lane fund ($30 million last year, at least). Some $123 million was supposed to go to the Saline County project. The $90 million Interstate 630 project used an as-yet-unknown amount of Amendment 91 money, which also must be restored.
To date, the highway department has only said it would “reprogram” money to cover costs. Richard Mays, attorney in a federal lawsuit challenging the environmental assessment for 30 Crossing, has been skeptical about this claim. He says chaos could result if the state is allowed to continue ongoing disruptive work without a certain source of money. He’s asked a federal court for an injunction until the state demonstrates it has the money for the project and also filed a new state court lawsuit yesterday to stop the work. The suit before Welch was brought by other lawyers.
Two major questions of some political sensitivity when the state finally has forced to get specific:
Does it have hundreds of millions in spare cash that can be swapped around among projects?
If so, why did it need a sales tax increase?
Will reprogramming money mean the loss of construction and maintenance all over Arkansas to put as much as $700 million or more into Pulaski-Salinne freeways?
Political note: Pulaski County, slated for a billion-plus in freeway work, voted 51-49 AGAINST Issue 1, the new sales tax increase permanently guaranteed for highways. The 30 Crossing project doesn’t enjoy broad support in Little Rock. It’s viewed by many as little needed and damaging to neighborhoods.