Arkansas has annual highway "needs" totaling about $900 million, but only about $450 million available in highway allocations. The state Highway Commission hoped to get some of the difference from other existing general state revenues. Gov. Asa Hutchinson's response was perfect:
"I want to be very plain-spoken today. ... I will vigorously oppose any plan that taps additional general revenues from our revenue stream. These are funds that are necessary for education, for public safety and for all the other needs of our state and so I say, no, we cannot divert that general revenue stream. ... That is an important principle [that] bears emphasizing today as ... [we] look at the new potential for a highway plan in the future."
Good government is often a matter of intelligent economics. In the case of roads, U.S. drivers have always gotten too much of a free ride from government. Our unrealistically low gasoline price, around $2.50 at the pump, is the source of our hugely distorted national, state and local transportation systems. Typical European prices, such as Germany's $6.25 per gallon, is slightly more realistic although still far below the real cost of driving in our car-centric system.
America has the industrialized world's worst transportation system, and our low price of gasoline is a primary reason. Motorized transportation comprises mostly cars, buses, trains and planes. Compared with peer nations, our highways are congested and crumbling, buses are rare outside of big cities, passenger rail is sluggish and rare, and airports are congested and burdened by our lack of rail connections, forcing one to either drive or fly from Northwest Arkansas to, say, Little Rock, Dallas or St. Louis. With a rail system such as China's, for example, it would be a three-hour train ride to St. Louis's city center, including a connection in Kansas City.
Northwest Arkansas highways seem to be colored mostly orange these days. It's hard to find one that's neither crumbling nor under repair. Our car-centered system is obviously unsustainable, yet we continue throwing money at it. The solution is not more lanes on Interstate 49, but mass transit. Population concentration in Northwest Arkansas could easily sustain a thriving commuter rail system that would be faster, cheaper, safer, more convenient and, above all, more fun than the current mind-numbing, steering-wheel-gripping commutes. Who wants to drive amidst orange cones and impatient commuters for 40 minutes when they could be reading or enjoying the scenery flashing past a train window? Rapid bus transit would also be feasible.
Young folks are far more nimble thinkers than us old guys when it comes to such encrusted cultural icons as the private automobile. "Kids" (anybody much younger than my 82 years) are increasingly attracted to livable city centers in Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia (my boyhood home, where I recently spent a pleasant vacation) and elsewhere. They are walking, skate-boarding, riding bicycles, and hopping on trains and buses all over the country, including Northwest Arkansas. I ride my cherished bicycle every chance I get, and I have seen larger and larger numbers of bicyclers in town, on the trails and on the university campus.
One message I'm sensing is that it's time for the University of Arkansas to go partly or entirely "carless." It's happening on many forward-looking campuses. Able-bodied students should leave their cars in off-campus lots served by buses. There's no reason not to do this on the University of Arkansas campus. Think of the resulting improvements in student grades, drunk driving, health, road congestion, carbon emissions, costs, university infrastructure, campus space needs, etc.
All Arkansas cities, including my beloved Fayetteville, have made a big mistake by allowing sprawling development out beyond the real city. Nothing promotes car overuse more than suburban sprawl. A person should not have to drive two tons of steel across town just to buy a loaf of bread. We'd all be happier and healthier if we lived in compact cities with real, definable and absolute boundaries, and did most of our shopping in small neighborhood stores rather than impersonal big-box stores miles away. City and highway planning have a lot to do with this question, and I'm delighted to see Fayetteville in-filling its empty spaces and building upward rather than outward. Both Mayor Lioneld Jordan and our previous mayor, Dan Coody, have excellent city planning values and I thank them for encouraging such good transportation habits as walking, bicycling and in-filling.
Arkansas doesn't need more roads. It needs fewer cars, the intelligence to promote that goal, and the fortitude to get there.
Commentary on 11/21/2017
Print Headline: Governor's road response excellent