A report released Tuesday says Arkansas motorists are losing about $2 billion a year through higher vehicle costs because of the poor condition of roads and bridges.
The non-profit national transportation research group TRIP says 32 percent of major locally and state-maintained roads in urban areas and 23 percent in rural areas are in poor condition. 23 percent of Arkansas bridges, the group says, are in need of repair, improvement or replacement.
"The report found that the average motorist in the Little Rock area is spending an additional $1,674 a year in the cost of operating a vehicle on rough roads, in the cost of delays on congested roads and the cost of serious and fatal traffic crashes," said Rocky Moretti, director of policy and research for TRIP.
He was joined by Arkansas transportation officials who called for increasing funding for transportation projects at the state, local and federal levels.
"It becomes clearly obvious, especially through an independent report like this, that what we have is not enough. The current funding sources are not keeping up," said Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department.
A key problem, Bennett said, is declining fuel taxes as cars and trucks are getting better mileage than in the past. That has historically been the main source of revenue for highway improvements, but Bennett said the funding model is becoming outdated and that new sources of revenue are needed. Otherwise, he said the state will have to scale back on highway projects.
"We announced just about a week ago that we’ve already pulled $30 million in projects from this next letting (of contracts). There’s going to be more of that coming until we find a sustainable source of revenue," Bennett said.
He said some states are experimenting with a tax that is based on the number of miles a vehicle is driven. The department is considering a pilot program to see how that might work here.
Arkansas has the 12th largest highway system in the country, Bennett notes, but is 44th in revenue per mile for making improvements. He said voters twice approving short-term taxes that went toward highway projects in recent years shows the public supports investing in roads.
The report also said Arkansas is among the deadliest states in the nation when it comes to people being killed in traffic accidents. 2,849 people died in accidents between 2008 and 2012. It had an overall traffic fatality rate of 1.65 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel in 2012, the study said, making it the fifth highest in the U.S.
State Highway Commissioner Robert Moore said safe and well-maintained highways are critical for economic development and that changes are needed.
"Highway construction and maintenance costs continues to go up and revenues to fund those costs continue to go down and the twain shall not meet. That's the challenge that this new legislature and new governor will be looking at," Moore said.
The 2015 session of the Arkansas General Assembly is to convene next Monday. Incoming Governor Asa Hutchinson is to be sworn in the following day.
When asked about highway funding during a meeting with reporters Tuesday, Hutchinson said he has thought about the issue "a lot," but had no plans to present anything during the coming session.
"I recognize the need that is there. I recognize the declining revenue stream because of fuel efficiency and other challenges in the way we fund our highways," Hutchinson said. "There has to be an examination of that long-term and there will be some legislative efforts, I assume, in this session, but it's going to be hard to pull that together and develop the consensus that is needed in this regular session."
The full report can be viewed here.