In Arkansas, all roads lead to a shortage of money for Arkansas' highway system.
And most of those roads are pretty bumpy.
At times, that's hard to see here in Northwest Arkansas. The sheer volume of traffic has necessitated a number of highway projects just to keep things safe and unclogged. Or less clogged, at least. It seems almost any vehicle trip of more than a few miles requires navigating concrete barriers and orange barrels.
Our Arkansas highway commissioners are, again, in the midst of a never-ending search for money to keep highway construction and maintenance going in the Natural State. Arkansas is asphalt rich but resource poor when it comes to taking care of interstates and highways.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson ran the Arkansas Highway Commission's funding bus off the road last week when he announced he would "vigorously oppose" any effort to divert revenue now collected and used for general government operations into the Arkansas Department of Transportation's coffers. He made his statements the day before the commission planned to discuss ideas for potential funding that could be put in front of the state's voters in 2018.
Highway officials have bounced around (not unlike passengers traveling the state's highways) the idea of slowly shifting general revenue raised through sales taxes on new and used cars to state highway projects. Hutchinson, wisely, recognizes the mood in the Legislature is for tax cuts. If Hutchinson stands by while highway advocates siphon off general revenue, he'll increase the likelihood he'll face funding shortfalls that will eliminate room for tax cuts or for funding other state services or projects.
Still, it appears highway leaders aren't giving up on their scheme entirely. Scott Bennett, the transportation department's director, reminded commissioners an online survey shows heavy support (64 percent) for transferring general revenue.
Now, let's not pretend he's taken a scientific survey truly representative of all Arkansans. Basically, people who are motivated to visit the Department of Transportation's website take the survey. Cities, such as Fayetteville, employ the same practice by using online tools such as SurveyMonkey to ask for feedback on current issues or potential projects.
I asked Janine Parry, a professor who runs the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas, how reliable such surveys are. They're not representative samples of public opinion that would stand up to academic standards, she said, but they can be helpful. They tend to collect feedback from people who are already involved, who may be opinion leaders on the subject or are motivated to be involved more than the average Arkansan. In other words, they will often be people who perceive they have a stake in the outcome and who already have more knowledge than the average citizen.
Such surveys are better than nothing, but decision-makers should recognize their limitations, Parry said. The surveys should be only one source of information for them. Others could be public hearings or expert advice, for example.
Academically sound polling costs money, so it's fairly rare to see a commitment to scientific polls.
I visited the Department of Transportation site and looked at the survey. The listed options for survey participants were:
• An increase in gas tax.
• An increase in diesel tax.
• An increase in sales tax dedicated to highways.
• An increase in vehicle registration fees.
• Adding sales tax on wholesale price of motor fuels.
• Transfer existing sales and use tax on motor vehicles and related parts and service (currently collected but not paid to highways.)
Now, if everything looks like an increase but one option means government won't be taking more out of my pocket, I'd bet you most Arkansans are going to take that latter option. So it's no wonder most people choose that option. What it doesn't say is what impact the transfer of revenue will have on other state government programs. That information would no doubt prove crucial to reaching a reasonable conclusion on whether the transfer is advisable.
I think most Arkansans want good highways and there's little question the Department of Transportation doesn't have enough money to handle the large system of highways it has. But years ago, Arkansans made the decision that what was then the Highway and Transportation Department should be a standalone agency, not a direct part of state government. All in all, I think that's been a pretty good approach.
If state residents want a well-maintained system of highways, there really can be no substitute for paying for it directly. That has traditionally been done through fuel taxes. As fellow columnist Art Hobson has pointed out before, fuel taxes help allocate the actual costs of maintaining a road system to the folks who use them, vehicle operators.
If Arkansans aren't willing to pay the price, perhaps it's time for the state to seriously evaluate what's necessary to reduce the inventory of roads being built and maintained.
Commentary on 10/23/2017
Print Headline: The governor says no