The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department faced scrutiny Tuesday after miles long, overnight traffic problems last week as a result of winter storms in east Arkansas.
A committee hearing was called after several state lawmakers and Governor Mike Beebe chastised the highway department’s response to the onslaught of sleet, ice, and snow that covered much of northeast Arkansas.
Broadcasts and pictures of clear roads in Missouri and Tennessee juxtaposed with ice-covered surfaces on the Arkansas side of shared highways have alarmed a number of legislators who want to know why Arkansas’s roads faired so differently. Highway Department Director Scott Bennett had answers for them.
“Tennessee’s budget is about twice ours, they get about $50,000 more per lane mile. They’ve got 600 more employees but they’ve got 2,500 fewer total miles than we do,” said Bennett.
The director added that Missouri’s problems were confined to southern portions of the state while Arkansas faced a state wide problem. Bennett made comments about Missouri similar to those made about Tennessee.
“When you just look at the southern part of Missouri, they’ve got 46 counties in their southern districts, they’ve got 570 belly plows. We’ve got almost 700 trucks statewide but we’ve only got six belly plows and again, some of our trucks aren’t even capable of putting a plow on the front. They’ve got 5,100 employees we’ve got 3,600. They get about 20 thousand more revenue per mile. Their revenue, their total budget is about three times what ours is,” said Bennett.
He said east Arkansas, in particular Randolph and Mississippi counties, received much heavier sleet and snow than Missouri and Tennessee. Senator Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock asked what needed to be done.
“Answer me this, what price tag do you think we need to put on moving ahead so we don’t experience this again?” asked Chesterfield.
Bennett’s estimate was not well received by many in the committee.
Bennett: “If we’re talking about fully implementing the snow and ice removal plan based on Missouri we’re probably talking the $50 to $60 million range,”
Chesterfield: “Okay, so not quite as much. What would get us something for what we’re going to do it’s not likely we’re going to get you $50 million. What would 22 get us?” [laughter]
Bennett: "Last week I had trouble getting one." [laughter]
Bennett continued saying $22 million would help restore the age of the department’s fleet of vehicles to 2005 levels. He also argued for the construction of regional salt storage facilities and the hiring of additional seasonal labor. Bennett said the problem goes beyond the response plan.
“We’ve done a lot of those things, reducing our forces, trying to reduce the amount of the fleet that we have, increasing the average age of the fleet and trying to take better care of what we have. We’ve done a lot of those things in the name of efficiency. When you have an event like this it doesn’t take you long to figure out that a lot of the things we’ve done in the name of efficiencies have really become glaring deficiencies,” said Bennett.
Legislators did not openly challenge Bennett’s assertion that years of downsizing and incremental budget changes have caused the department to become more inefficient in winter weather events. But claims by State Police Chief Stan Witt saying trucks obscuring traffic were sometimes left in place if drivers couldn’t pay tow trucks drew the ire of legislators. Senator Bobby Pierce of Sheridan was among those who found the notion objectionable.
“You’re going down the road and you’ve got one blockage all the way back to Benton. Something needs to move, it don’t need to sit there and wait. These wreckers that’s coming out, that’s something I think we need to really look at. If we’ve got a problem there maybe the state needs to take care of it or somebody needs to take care of it. But if that wrecker goes all the way out there and we waited 30 minutes or 40 minutes for him to get there somebody needs to pull something when he gets there or somebody needs to lose their license,” said Pierce.
Speaking after the hearing members of the Arkansas Towing and Recovery Board vehemently argued towing companies do not, and did not, perform that way but admitted such instances may have occurred in isolation.
The Highway and Transportation Department's presentation included specific requests in the event the state wants to handle road conditions in the way vocalized by legislators. But it appears the price tag may be too high for many of those changes.