Inability Of Congress To Pass Long-Term Highway Bill Causes Frustrations

Jul 28, 2015

Members of the Governor's Working Group on Highway Funding listen as AHTD Director Scott Bennett (center) speaks during Tuesday's meeting.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

The head of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department and the state's senior U.S. Senator are disappointed with the apparent inability of Congress to pass a long-term highway funding bill. 

With the Highway Trust Fund set to run out of money at the end of the month, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are likely to approve only a three-month extension, rather than a six year deal that many, including Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, had been pushing for.

AHTD Director Scott Bennett told the Governor’s Working Group on Highway Funding, which he is a member of, that he’s upset the department has had to cancel bids for 75 highway projects in recent months because they don’t know if funding will be available to complete them. He said what appears likely to pass does little to help.

"Three months will get you ‘til the end of October. That might let us do a few of the withdrawn projects, but it’s still… they kicked the can down the road and it landed in a pothole, so I’m not sure they can kick it anymore," Bennett said during Tuesday’s meeting at the Capitol.

Sen. John Boozman, a Republican of Rogers, told KUAR he agrees with the concerns of the state highway director that a long-term deal is needed, but with a five-week recess just days away, it would be hard to reach.

"I’m very much concerned about the effects of the three month extension because it really doesn’t do anything for our highway commissioners’ inability to let these contracts. So it just puts everything on hold," Boozman said. "If there’s nothing else out there at this point, then we’ll probably go with a short-term extension and try to get this worked out."

Monday night the Senate voted to attach a re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank to its version of the highway bill. That’s a move opposed by many conservatives, who view the support for international trade as harmful corporate welfare. Boozman voted against adding the amendment, but said he would still support the six-year highway funding bill, even with the unwanted attachment.

Arkansas gets more than half of its funding for highway projects from the federal government. The state meanwhile is also grappling with a shortfall in funding from a fuel tax as more vehicles are getting better mileage. The group appointed to study state funding is to make recommendations to Gov. Asa Hutchinson by Dec. 15. But Bennett told members that Congress not being able to reach a long-term deal is exacerbating the situation.

"We believe that we manage and control everything as best we can, but there’s just so much of it that’s beyond our control and that’s never been more evident than now, with what’s going on in Washington," he said.

Arkansas budgets $900 million annual for highways, Bennett said, with $490 million coming from the federal government and $410 million from the state. 80 percent of that goes toward maintenance of roadways and bridges and 20 percent capital improvements or new projects.

7,500 jobs statewide have been impacted in one way or another by the delay of planned projects, he said.

The panel also heard from John Theis, an assistant commissioner with the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, who gave details about state revenue for highways. In particular, members discussed the state’s gas tax, which hasn’t change since 2001 from 21.5 cents per gallon.

There were also questions about the growth of compressed natural gas, which Theis said hadn’t exceeded 1,000 vehicles in the state. He was also asked about electric vehicles that use no gasoline. While hybrid vehicles have grown in popularity, there aren’t enough solely electric vehicles to be a concern, but said there is consideration of eventually finding a way to use technology to track how many miles users of electric cars drive and tax them accordingly.