By Thomas Beckett, NMA Member
Editor’s Note: In 2020, for the Driving in America blog, Thomas has already written numerous posts on how a small state like Arkansas is working to fund infrastructure projects and an additional post on how Arkansas is raising speed limits. Check out his posts here:
- Driving in America—Arkansas Report Part 1
- Nothing as Permanent as a Temporary Solution—Driving in America: Arkansas Report Part 2
- Motorists Vote 2020: Arkansas Ballot Issue 1
- Hammer Down! Highway Speed Limits Increase in Arkansas
- Wanna Bet? How Casino Gambling Will Pay the Way for Highway Funding in Arkansas, Part 1
- Wanna Bet? How Casino Gambling Will Pay the Way for Highway Funding in Arkansas, Part 2
- Motorists Vote 2020: Arkansas Ballot Question 1 Part 2
Election Update on Arkansas Statewide Issue 1
Issue 1 on the November 3rd ballot passed by a 55-45 margin. The half-cent sales tax for transportation, funding initially established in 2014, was set to expire in 2023. This yes vote makes that half-cent sales tax permanent and will remain a permanent funding source for the Arkansas highways. This funding will supplement the gas tax increase passed in the previous legislative session and the proceeds from the casino taxes that will soon be forthcoming. The money will be split 70/15/15, with the Arkansas Department of Transportation or ARDOT receiving 70 percent of the permanent tax—counties and cities with 15 percent each.
Saracen Casino opens with some Funds for Transportation
The Saracen Casino in Pine Bluff, operated by the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma, opened in late October. It has seven restaurants, 35 table games, and over 2000 slot machines. A hotel with event spaces is not yet open. The Saracen Annex, a limited space casino opened as a temporary facility in September 2019, has generated $531 million in bets, resulting in a $38 million profit and $5 million in taxes to Arkansas. Revenue estimates were not quoted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article for the permanent facility. It is the third casino to open. The final casino, in Russellville, is still mired in litigation.
Little Rock: 30 Crossing Court Case and Beyond
I have not dug into the 30 Crossing project yet, which I will do in some detail in a future post. The basics are, it will upgrade I-30 at various points, most notably a new Arkansas River bridge in Little Rock, as well as reconstruction of I-30 through Little Rock, and some improvements to I-40 from the I-30 junction to the US67/167 split in North Little Rock.
The project has had some controversy and is opposed by many in the Little Rock area due to the changes it would bring to parts of the city near the interstate, as it will expand the roadway from four lanes in some places to as many as ten. As with everything, there is litigation.
Funding for the project is from Amendment 91, which added the temporary .5 percent sales tax that the current year’s Issue 1 extended. According to the Arkansas Supreme Court, here’s the rub: Amendment 91 allows for “four-lane highway improvements.” Four plaintiffs, Shelly Buonauito, Mary Weeks, Verlon Abrams, and Sarah Thompson, brought suit to stop the project, asserting that Amendment 91 provides for four-lane construction and improvements only. They claim that funding anything else through Amendment 91 is, therefore, unconstitutional. They lost in lower courts, but the Supreme Court took a literal reading of the amendment and remanded the case to the District Court. Approximately $650 million of the almost $1 billion project was to come from Amendment 91 funds.
Richard Mays, a lawyer who is involved with a Federal case to stop the project, has said that the project should be stopped immediately since ARDOT no longer has a “reasonable assurance” of the funding to complete the project, as required by federal regulation. He has sent a letter to the Federal Highway Administration stating that position. The battle is ongoing. Unless ARDOT can come up with non-Amendment 91 money, continuing the project would violate the Supreme Court decision, according to Mays.
Casey Covington, deputy director of Metroplan, the long-range transportation planning agency for central Arkansas, says that Mays is correct as far as he goes on the regulations, but says that the same regulations also contain a clause stating that work can continue if a revenue source is removed or significantly reduced. Metroplan, ARDOT, and FWHA are working on a solution.
My take: The lawyers are not likely done with this yet, so I’m sure this battle will rage on for some time. Meanwhile, if work has to stop, the project will ultimately only become more expensive and will mostly get done anyway, though perhaps somewhat scaled-down.
In my not so humble opinion, from the point of view of someone who drives this stretch of roadway several times a year and has driven it in everything from a Dodge Stratus R/T to an 18-wheeler, it needs work. The bridge is aging, and replacement is needed. I-30 through downtown Little Rock is a bouncy mess. While I’m not a huge fan of breaking up neighborhoods to build highways—I saw what projects like the Cross Bronx and Clearview Expressways did in New York 55 years ago—the right-of-way already exists here the existing roadway is congested a lot of the time.
Adding a couple of lanes will ease that but not expand the right-of-way much. An expansion of the I- 30/530/440 interchange at the south end of town is a good idea, as is the expansion of I-30 from Benton to US 70. Traffic gets pretty tight in there sometimes.
While I get the point of the strict reading of constitutional amendments, nitpicking over the term “four-lane,” meaning four lanes only, and no other, more expansive improvements on an expressway, strikes me as arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It should be obvious to anyone who drives on I-30 that widening is needed. The population and traffic have increased significantly since the highway was built years ago. To prevent funding needed improvements over semantics is counterproductive and does not serve the traveling public. But if someone is dead set against the project, any argument against it is a good one.
Road Trip and Arkansas Speed Limit Signs
We were finally able to get out into the Arkansas River valley a couple of weekends ago, taking the Winnebago, so we’re self-contained, as it has a bathroom and a fridge. We bring our own drinks and food, so we don’t have to take a chance on questionable facilities on a Siloam Springs-Spiro to OK-Fort Smith turn. We did stop at AJ’s Oyster House in Fort Smith for curbside—we don’t go into any restaurant in the current environment. I had an Oyster Po’ Boy and Boudin sausage; my wife had shrimp and fried okra.
The return was through Springdale, via I-49. I had heard that the 75 MPH signs were now up but had not been out until two weekends ago. We came off the connection from I-40, and there it was: speed limit 75. Good deal.
Where ARDOT fell down, though, was leaving the truck speed at 70. Unfortunately, Arkansas has gone back to the ranks of split-speed states (At least it’s not a big split, like the idiotic 55 MPH truck speed in California, when cars are allowed 70 MPH). The five MPH difference is not significant enough to cause a problem most of the time, and most of the big fleets are governed in the 70 MPH range anyway. I-49 south of Fayetteville is a “dragonfly” road for trucks: drag up the hills, fly down them—so they won’t be making the 75, or even 70 MPH a lot of the time as it is. But it’s good to see posted speeds reflect reality, especially on a roadway engineered and built for safe travel at a relatively high speed.