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A lawsuit challenging the legality of state spending on two major road construction projects in Pulaski County will proceed to trial after a Pulaski County judge denied requests for summary judgments by both sides.

The lawsuit said a "plain reading" of Amendment 91 to the Arkansas Constitution, which governs a significant amount of spending under the Arkansas Department of Transportation's $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program, limits funding to improvements to four-lane highways or two-lane highways being widened to four lanes.

But Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chip Welch said in an eight-page ruling Wednesday that he wasn't left with a "firm conviction regarding the meaning of 'four-lane highway system."

"After consideration of the undisputed facts herein, and giving full deference to the constitutional amendment when possible, the only thing clear to the Court is that reasonable minds could very well reach different conclusions" on the meaning of 'four-lane highways,'" the judge wrote.

A spokesman for the Transportation Department, which is a defendant in the lawsuit, said agency officials liked the ruling.

"The department is pleased with the well-reasoned decision and look forward to the final hearing on the matter," spokesman Danny Straessle said.

Welch set the matter for a one-day bench trial in August.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Justin Zachary of Conway, couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

The two projects at the center of the lawsuit include an $87.4 million widening of a 2.2-mile section of Interstate 630 in west Little Rock to eight lanes from six. The work began last summer and is scheduled to be completed next year.

The other is a 6.7-mile section of Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock. Construction won't begin until next year under the $631.7 million project, which will replace the Interstate 30 bridge over the Arkansas River and widen some sections to 10 lanes from six.

Both projects rely on significant funds from the Connecting Arkansas Program, which focuses on regionally significant jobs around the state. The program is financed in large part by a half-percent sales tax contained in Amendment 91, which voters approved in 2012. The tax is in place for 10 years.

The amendment language defines "four-lane highway improvements" to include "four-lane roadways, bridges, tunnels, engineering, rights of way and other related capital improvements and facilities appurtenant or pertaining thereto, including costs of rights-of-way acquisition and utility adjustments."

The language also includes "the maintenance of four-lane highway improvements constructed with proceeds of the bond" within the definition of "four-lane highway improvements."

The amendment contains other references to four-lane highways, including that the bonds issued as part of the program are payable from the Arkansas Four-Lane Highway Construction and Improvement Bond Account.

In his ruling, Welch adopted some of the arguments the attorney for the Transportation Department, Rita Looney, presented at a hearing last week, including the fact that the I-30 job is a bridge project.

"One of the two projects complained of in this matter is, by stipulation of the parties, a bridge project ... located at the I-30 Arkansas River Bridge in Little Rock," he wrote. "While the popular name, ballot title and text of the amendment make clear bridges are to be included in the amendment, at no point does it limit it to bridges on four-lane highways."

Welch also honed in on ambiguities related to U.S. standards for receiving federal monies, which includes the phrase, "Such standards shall in all cases provided for at least four lanes of traffic."

"This language is not dispositive -- in fact, it further muddies the analysis, such that one wonders whether Arkansas meant at least four lanes in accordance with federal standards, but simply failed to state as much, OR because of such explicit failure to state at least, whether they were implicitly deviating from the federal standards?

"In either event, this is yet another factor contributing to the ambiguity of the language 'four-lane highway.'"

Welch also noted in his order that all parties conceded that "four-lane highways" includes a "myriad of highway systems -- improvements to two-lane highways, construction on two-lane highways to make them four-lane highways, construction on four-lane highways to make them six-lane highways, etc.

"Plaintiffs' assertion that 'four-lane highways' does not include six-lane highways (except in specific circumstances when it does) does not contribute to their argument that 'four-lane highways' must only and always mean highways consisting of four-lanes."

The Transportation Department and other defendants also sought a summary judgment in their favor, but Welch denied that motion as well.

"The court is not prepared to accept defendants' assertion .. that a literal reading of 'four-lane highway system' would lead to absurd results," Welch wrote. "Any assertion that a literal interpretation of Amendment 91 would lead to 'absurd consequences that are contrary to legislative intent' is a material issue of fact requiring a more thorough showing of both the injustice or absurdity in such a literal interpretation, as well as the legislative intent at the time the amendment was proposed."

Zachary represents four Arkansas residents who sued to stop any Amendment 91 monies being used on the projects.

They are Shelley Buonauito and Sara B. Thompson, both of Fayetteville; Mary Weeks of Little Rock; and Verlon Abram of the Cleburne County community of Wilburn. A fifth plaintiff, Richard Mason of El Dorado, dropped out of the lawsuit.

Defendants include the Transportation Department, the Arkansas Highway Commission, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, state Auditor Andrea Lea, Treasurer Dennis Milligan and Larry Walther, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration.

Metro on 05/23/2019

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