VIDEO: After Idea Debate, Highway Funding Stakeholders Look For Leadership

The Governor's Working Group on Highway Funding, during the first meeting of the group in July.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

The Governor’s Working Group on Highways has been meeting for months to discuss possible solutions for short-term, medium-range and long-term funding goals to maintain and repair Arkansas highways. 

Currently, the task force is focused on short-term funding and is seeking to come up with approximately $110 million in new annual revenues for roads.

Lawmakers have advanced ideas such as funding shifts of transportation-related revenues and the use of surplus funds. The state’s trucking association has expressed willingness for a five-cent diesel fuel tax hike. And advocacy groups and individuals have encouraged other motor fuel tax increases as well as indexing the gas tax.

Craig Douglass with the Good Roads Foundation, Shannon Newton with the Arkansas Trucking Association, and Chris Villines with the Association of Arkansas Counties all appeared on a roundtable on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics to discuss the subject of highway funding.

Douglass said with a new governor and changing faces in the legislature, the work of the task force on roads is relevant despite a blue ribbon commission that studied similar issues six years ago. His group, which helped lead a half-cent sales tax increase for highway improvements in 2012, believes it is politically feasible to raise the fuel tax if voters know where the money will be spent.

“I think if legislators would talk to their folks back home they would remember and realize that the folks back home will support increases in revenue for highways. They did in 2012 – 58% of Arkansans that voted in the general election passed a half-cent sales tax that went directly to highways, to a highway department that ranks in the top 3, in terms of efficiency. So, I think it is doable.”

Newton said trucking leaders are willing to support a five-cent diesel fuel tax increase since they are users and consumers of the road. She believes it’s prudent to review all current state spending on roads to see if there are efficiencies to be gained.

“Before we can start talking about new revenue, I think it’s a fair conversation to have to make sure we’re spending the money we have correctly and efficiently,” said Newton.

However, she added that the working group’s ideas need advocates within the governor’s office and the state Legislature.

“It seems as though we have a lot of champions on the outside. We don’t have anybody on the inside that’s willing to take a leadership role, so I think that’s really what we’re looking for,” Newton added in reference to the legislative and executive branches of state government.

Villines’ group – which maintains roads at the local level along with the Arkansas Municipal League – receives roughly 15% of the lion’s share of state highway tax revenues. He says while his group oversees about 70,000 miles of county roads, he’s also worried about bridge maintenance as well as highways.

“We do recognize the need for additional revenue out there. We’ve got bridges and county roads in bad shape and the gas tax is not keeping up, keeping pace with inflation. We certainly like some of the ideas that are being thrown out there. We’re going to go through them and vet them,” he said. “I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this is a ‘governor’s’ working group. It starts with the word ‘governor,’ so ultimately these decisions, these ideas will be kicked up to his office.”