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Informed, educated citizens will support local road and bridge funding needs

By Mark Whitmore, AAC Chief Counsel

Governor Asa Hutchinson entered office in 2015 and inherited a longstanding major shortfall in funding for state and local roads and bridges. On April 23, 2015, the Governor issued Executive Order (EO) 15-08. The Governor determined that an efficient transportation system is critical for Arkansas’ economy. He referenced several independent studies that have determined the state and local highways, roads, streets and bridges in Arkansas are in dire need of construction, reconstruction and maintenance.

The Governor determined the revenues currently available are inadequate for the preservation and maintenance of the existing infrastructure and for enhancements to reduce congestion.

The current structure of the motor fuels tax is inadequate due to reductions in revenues due to fuel efficiency and use of alternative fuels. In essence, road and bridge funding in Arkansas has not kept up with the road and bridge funding needs. This plight is not unique to Arkansas.

Many states have addressed the situation and raised taxes. More than half the states, 27 states, have passed an increase in the motor fuels tax in the past five years. Their leaders and constituents accept that keeping pace with road and bridge construction needs requires increases in revenues. They acted to reverse the losses in gas tax purchasing power caused by rising construction costs. They abandoned stagnant fixed rate taxes, such as per-gallon taxes, and adopted smarter tax structures.

Our leaders and informed constituents likewise accept these fundamental realities. Our leaders and constituents need to formulate and adopt sound measures to address the revenue needs. The Governor appointed the 20-member Working Group on Highway Funding (Working Group) to actively involve the public to determine adequate funding for the “present and future needs of the state highways, county roads and city streets.” The group provided the Governor recommendations to create a more reliable, modern and effective system of funding on Dec. 15, 2015.

However, recent efforts to adopt state and local road and bridge funding have failed. Efforts for legislation during the third extraordinary session of 2016 and during the regular session of 2017 were unsuccessful. Rep. Dan Douglas filed legislation known as House Bill (HB) 1726, to authorize a vote of the people on a bond issue. The measure died in the House of Representatives with 38 voting For, 35 voting Against, 20 non-voting, and 7 voting present. The companion bill, HB 1727, to levy taxes on motor fuels passed the House Transportation Committee but did not get a vote in the House of Representatives, due in part to failure of HB 1726.

The Transportation Investment Advocacy Center recently reported that 96 percent of lawmakers across the country that voted in favor of gas tax increases faced re-election and will advance to the November general election. The numbers reflect that of those 558 lawmakers that voted for a gas tax increase and ran for election, 295 Republican lawmakers (96 percent) and 263 Democratic legislators (97 percent) will advance to the general elections in November. The myth that voting for an increase for road revenues will meet disapproval by the electorate is just that — an unfounded myth.

The Traditional 70-15-15 split

The County Judges’ Association of Arkansas (CJAA) supports measures to increase funding. The CJAA adopted a resolution in support of the Working Group’s recommendations, provided the proposed measures adopt the traditional 70-15-15 split of revenues between the state (70 percent), cities (15 percent) and counties (15 percent). The road and bridge system in the state of Arkansas is interconnected, and it is imperative that the state, cities and counties have adequate funding and properly maintain their respective roadways.

The traditional 70-15-15 split of revenues among the state, cities and counties has proven effective. The traditional split commenced in 1965. It has continued to date. In 2012, the voters further expressed their approval of the 70-15-15 split for the allocation of funds under Amendment 95 of the Arkansas Constitution. The traditional 70-15-15 split has a proven track record of support by the citizens.

The CJAA has engaged an expert to demonstrate the needs for maintaining and reconstruction of our county roads and bridges statewide. Also, 11 counties have taken additional steps and assessed the condition of paved roads: Benton, Clark, Faulkner, Franklin, Greene, Little River, Lonoke, Pulaski, Saline, Sebastian and Washington. These counties have established a pavement assessment program and pavement preservation program. The information below demonstrates the needs of counties statewide.

Education of the Citizens

Historically, informed citizens support state and local road and bridge revenue programs, provided they are educated as to the dire needs the Governor and independent studies reference.

In January 2016, the CJAA engaged the services of an experienced civil engineer, Tom Black, P.E. Black has conducted an analysis and report of the annual funding needs for the county roads and bridges statewide. A copy of Black’s report, “County Road Needs Report,” is posted on the AAC web site at www.arcounties.org/site/assets/files/4405/aacreport_1.pdf.

During the past two years the CJAA has received periodic preliminary reports and updates in data, analysis and conclusions on these matters. The report of Black was produced with the efforts and support of: Michael Morgan of Greenberg-Farrow; Dr. Stacy Williams with the University of Arkansas, Department of Civil Engineering; Darryl Gardner with Ergon Asphalt and Emulsions, Inc.; Shelby Johnson and Jonathan Duran with State Geographic Information System (GIS); and the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT).

Recent enhancements in mapping data have proven helpful. The recent Map-21 project (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act adopted by Congress and signed into law in 2012) was recently completed. The result is greatly enhanced mapping information, including data on tens of thousands of miles of roads throughout Arkansas. According to the data from the Map 21 project and other sources and the calculations of GIS there are approximately 50,000 miles of county-maintained roads in Arkansas. The estimated breakdown statewide is approximately 33,828 miles of unpaved county roads and approximately 15,921 miles of paved county roads. To provide perspective, the estimates of city streets statewide in Arkansas are approximately 15,518 miles. The most recent estimates of total state highway, U.S. highway and interstate miles in Arkansas is approximately 16,418 miles.

The report estimates the total annual cost of maintaining the 49,749 miles of county road at $197,743,406. The annual cost of maintaining the 15,921 miles of paved county roads is estimated at $95,922,069. The annual cost of maintaining the 33,828 miles of unpaved county roads is $101,821,327 ($2,564.35 per mile). This information expresses the magnitude of the level of funding necessary to maintain what we have. The report is well supported. Citizens, businesses, industry, farmers and tourists that use county roads for their personal travel or for taking farm products or livestock to market will readily support revenues under the 70-15-15 split that will go for maintenance and improvement of county roads.

Black’s preliminary report over the past two years and his final report have increased awareness of the needs statewide for the state, county and city bridges. The summary of the condition of bridges throughout the state is as follows: There are 12,669 Bridges 20 feet long or longer in Arkansas. The state has 7,346 bridges (58 percent) of the total — 16 percent, or 1,196, of those are Structurally Deficient (SD) or Functionally Obsolete (FO). FO bridges are those that do not have adequate lane widths, shoulder widths, or vertical clearances to serve current traffic, or those that may flood. SD bridges are those that have been restricted to light weight vehicles, closed to traffic or require rehabilitation.

The ArDOT is forever vigilant in apprising and updating on the conditions of the thousands of miles of interstates, U.S. and state highways. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires assessment of roadway conditions, traffic accidents or collision statistics, and bridge inspections.

Counties and cities benefit from the bridge inspection reports required by the U.S. Department of Transportation and conducted and provided by ArDOT.

Counties have 4,297 bridges (34 percent) of the total — 27 percent, or 1,174, are SD or FO. Cities have 1,026 bridges, 8 percent, of the total — 22 percent, or 221, are SD or FO. The report reflects there are 505, or 43 percent, of the 1,174 FO and SD bridges that are weight restricted below 15 tons, the weight below a loaded full-size school bus. This means 12 percent of the 4,307 county bridges have a weight limit less than the weight of a loaded school bus. The estimated cost of replacing the 812 FO county road bridges is $332,385,847. The cost of replacing the 362 SD county road bridges is 158,841,376. The estimate of the total cost of replacing all of the county road bridges that are FO and SD is $491,227,223.

The “County Roads Needs Report” is extremely informative and will significantly assist our county officials in expressing the annual maintenance needs to the citizens. Additionally, the aforementioned 11 counties and as many cities have gone much further. They have engaged consultants to assess the condition of the county and city roadway pavements. Sebastian County Judge David Hudson was the first to collaborate in the creation of a pavement assessment and preservation program for county judges.

“The program first collects objective data. The data is then applied as part of a pavement management program. The objective is to allocate resources in order to raise the rating of the spectrum of roads: to raise the conditions of all roads (not just the worse roads but as well to simultaneously take care of the roads that are in good and fair condition),” says Hudson.

The program is not just to obtain an objective study of the road conditions but also to obtain the consultation by experts on construction and maintenance techniques and equipment to support the program. Objective data and objective preservation programming leads to informed budgeting. This information has led Sebastian County to launch maintenance programs such as their double chip seal and fog seal programs.

Benton County Judge Barry Moehring says the pavement assessment program the county uses has helped them “make measurable progress toward better county roads.” The county engaged consultants to do a video survey of 800 miles of paved roads. The county obtained a detailed report, including identifying problem areas using geographic information system satellite mapping data. The county has developed a revised road plan and developed its 2018 plan and the 2019 road plan based on the information from the assessment. The roads were designated by paving condition in color-coded categories ranging from dark green, meaning the pavement is in excellent condition, to red, meaning the pavement was considered “lost” and in need of complete rebuilding. Jay Frasier, public services administrator and head of the Benton County Road Department, said paving priorities were set using the new information but pavement condition wasn’t the only factor considered.

“There are traffic counts we have to look at,” Frasier said. “The number of emergency vehicles and the number of school buses that use a road are important. The number of residents who live on a road is looked at. Obviously, the higher numbers get more attention than a low-traffic road. “Moehring said, “the county also considered the relative cost of each potential repair project. He said it’s sometimes better to do work on roads in relatively good condition than roads considered critical (orange) or lost (red)”. “It costs a lot more, once a road has gone to orange or red, to bring it back,” Moehring said. “It’s more cost-effective to keep green roads from going to yellow, orange or red. As we move forward, we think we’ll have more opportunities to get a yellow road and bring it back up to green.”

Access the “Benton County officials tout road improvements” article that ran in the Northwest Arkansas Times: http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2018/jul/30/benton-county-officials-tout-road-impro/?f=news-arkansas.

Pulaski County is in its third year of pavement assessment and management. According to Pulaski County Public Works Director Steve Brummett, the county has been successful in improving the condition and safety of the network of paved roads of Pulaski County. Brummett reports, “Gathering pavement condition and distress data using a pavement assessment and management process allows us to not only prioritize our pavement maintenance projects, but also allows us to effectively communicate our plans internally and externally. Our goal is to maintain good pavement and prioritize critical roads in a logical, thoughtful manner that helps us maximize workforce, equipment and materials in such a way that we get the most out of our budget.”

Pulaski County’s pavement management program is fully operational. The condition and distress data the county receives helps the county to be proactive and focus on isolated structural issues and potholes that most concern the constituents. It also enables the county to locate and focus its maintenance treatments based on the type and density of cracks present.

Indexing Motor Fuels Taxes and Alternative

Motor Fuel Taxes & Increases in Motor Fuel Taxes and Alternate Motor Fuel Taxes

The Working Group on Highway Funding included in their recommendations the need to increase the tax on motor fuels and to index motor fuels to inflation. Indexing motor fuels will assist the revenues to increase with inflation (such as the consumer price index); to correct the systemic lack of growth in motor fuel tax revenues (purchasing power); and in providing revenues necessary to prevent further decline in the public infrastructure of state, city and county bridges and roadways and public safety.

Likewise, a modest increase in the motor fuels tax rate is needed in response to decades of stagnation of revenues from motor fuels. The CJAA supports indexing motor fuels and an increase in motor fuels and alternative fuels taxes. Twenty-seven states have recently increased their motor fuels taxes and wisely revised them to account for construction inflation.

AMENDMENT 95: Approved

by the People Will Expire in 2023

County judges, mayors and the Arkansas State Highway Commission have a common task: to educate the citizens on the condition of their state and local roadways and bridges and the extent that additional revenues are needed to maintain or improve the conditions. Plainly, a modest increase in the motor fuels taxes and indexing motor fuel revenues will not be sufficient to bridge the gap between revenues and needs. The Working Group as well recommended consideration of adoption of a sales tax devoted to state and local roads and bridges. The people voted in favor of sales taxes being dedicated for roads and bridges under Amendment 95, which will expire in 2023. Adoption of sales taxes to be dedicated for roads and bridges should be afforded due consideration.

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