The Democrat-Gazette this morning gave big play to the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s purported explanation of how it will pay for the $1.3 billion 30 Crossing project in Little Rock after having been told by the Arkansas Supreme Court that it can’t legally use almost $450 million expected from the Amendment 91 temporary sales tax for the first phase of the project

The sum of the explanation offered the newspaper:

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The Arkansas Department of Transportation is using a mix of federal money and regular state matching funds to pay for work on 30 Crossing, the agency’s top official said Monday.

Not exactly a detailed explanation. What state matching? How much is in that fund? What will become of projects that had expected to tap that fund? How much has been illegally spent of Amendment 91 money so far? How will it be repaid? What about the money spent illegally on the completed I-630 widening? Where will that repayment come from.

But this was not the most interesting part of the friendly D-G account.

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While the Supreme Court ruling specifically mentioned only 30
Crossing and I-630, it said explicitly that Amendment 91 money could only be used for four-lane highways, not expansions for wider freeways. Thus another lawsuit has been filed in Circuit Court that also challenges the widening of five miles of Interstate 30 in Saline County at a cost of $125 million.

Lori Tudor, the director of the department, told the D-G note-taker that Amendment 91 money would continue to be spent in Saline County.

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“The Interstate 30 widening project in Saline County was not a part of the recent ruling from the Supreme Court,” she said.

This is what you might call a technicality. Or arrogance. Or something. Missing was the obvious followup question: WTF?

Here’s the brief by attorney Richard Mays explaining his request for an injunction on I-30 work in both Little Rock and Saline County.

It’s simple. The Arkansas Supreme Court has spoken. You can’t spend Amendment 91 money on anything but four-lanes. The Saline project widens a four-lane to six lanes. It and 30 Crossing work must stop until a specific explanation is offered for both the source of money and design of the project.

He’ll expand on this in a hearing Monday before Judge Mackie Pierce. Similar questions are likely to be posed in a suit by other parties that produced the Supreme Court ruling and is now back before Judge Chip Welch.

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Perhaps the highway department will expand in both venues on the sketchy explanation offered today of how it has enough money to shuffle around to build a $1.3 billion project; repay illegally spent I-630 money; shuffle $125 million into Saline County despite the seeming prohibition of a Supreme Court ruling, and STILL deliver the future maintenance and construction promised voters who approved a NEW sales tax increase beginning in 2023 dedicated solely to highways. (It was supposd to pay the $600 million overrun of the 30 Crossing Project, too.)

It might be time for the legislature to begin moving to assert some accountability over the highway construction lobby and its enablers on the Highway Commission.  A constitutional amendment, maybe?

At a minimum, Legislative Audit might ask: With all this money lying around, why did the highway department need a new tax increase in the first place?

Attorney Mays tells me he made some of these points during a presentation at an environmental policy conference. The legislature imposed a wholesale fuel tax increase in 2019 and with the new sales tax approved by voters this month, the large amount of tax money at the department’s disposal should bring re-evaluation of the agency’s independent status.

It no longer suffers from chronic underfunding. It has also spent wildly and illegally on controversial projects such as the Little Rock freeway expansions. Their methods of contracting also deserve scrutiny, such as the current I-30 scheme under which the contractor gets paid even if work is halted.

 

Said Mays:

In 2019, a bill was enacted to authorize the Legislative Council of the Arkansas General Assembly to hire consultants to conduct a study of the processes and functions of the Department, and to make recommendations for improvements. It is not certain whether the recommendations may include removal of the Department’s constitutional status, but that should be considered.

UPDATE: Here’s Tudor’s full statement. As you can see, a financing plan is still being developed.

When the Supreme Court released its ruling, ARDOT immediately
stopped expending Amendment 91 funds on the 30 Xing Project.

30 Xing is a multi-funded project – of the $632- million cost, $180-
million is Federal and Regular State matching funds. These funds are
now being used for all expenditures including contractor payments.

ARDOT will prepare a funding plan to offset the removal of Amendment
91 funds upon receipt of the final orders from the Supreme Court and
the Circuit Court. Regardless of the source of funds, ARDOT is
committed to moving forward with the project and we have no plans to
suspend work. To suspend construction would come at a huge cost to
taxpayers.

30 Xing was promised to voters in 2012. When completed, it will
significantly improve mobility for 120,000 vehicles per day – the highest
traveled corridor in the State. It will also replace the Arkansas River
Bridge and restore its structural integrity along with correcting the
current navigational channel problems.

The Interstate 30 widening project in Saline County was not a part of
the recent ruling from the Supreme Court.