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ART HOBSON: The wrong way forward

Governor’s proposed roads tax will make things worse by Art Hobson | March 10, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

With congested highways, crumbling pavement, sluggish public transit, lengthy airport queues, a mere 22,000 miles of slow (under 125 mph) passenger rail and no fast trains, U.S. transportation is stuck in low gear. China, for example, boasts 15,000 miles of fast rail and 60,000 miles of slow rail.

Our problem can be summarized in three words: too many cars. In Arkansas, it's true in spades, and it will get worse if we approve the governor's proposed permanent general sales tax for roads.

How do we fix this? I'm so glad you asked. Let me count the ways.

Beginning in Northwest Arkansas, the good news is existing bicycle trails and plans for more. To encourage walking, we need better downtown sidewalks. The most urgent need: mass transit. Northwest Arkansas' geometry is perfect for regional commuter trains, a much-discussed option that's perennially derailed by the all-cars-all-the-time crowd. Consequently, Interstate 40 is a congested, ugly, sprawling, frightening mess. Envision, instead, a train or BRT (bus rapid transit) connecting downtowns faster, cheaper, safer, cleaner and more enjoyably than today.

America's leading transportation problem is the car-dependent suburbs that infect every city and town. In Fayetteville, we surely know this by now, but we remain addicted to suburban sprawl. Given that cities won't dream of limiting their populations, I guarantee Fayetteville will expand, and this must either be upward or outward. If it's outward, it creates problems with transportation, environment, homelessness, poverty and downtown decay. Healthy expansion is compact, infilling, upward. Central Fayetteville needs more five-story buildings, hotels and infill of unused lots. Planned parks are essential, but it's a mistake to preserve much rural land in the middle.

The University of Arkansas provides part of the transportation solution with its excellent Razorback Transit buses, but it could contribute much more by limiting student vehicles. Out-of-town students should store their cars outside of town and use them only for travel home. A ban on student on-campus parking (except for the handicapped) would do wonders for the campus, for the city and most of all for the students themselves.

Statewide, conventional opinion favors roads, roads, roads. But we can't keep up with the roads we already have, and more roads only encourage more automobiles in an unproductive feedback loop. Arkansas' problem is too many cars, not too few roads. Highway money should go toward maintenance, not more infrastructure.

A proposal for faster trains along Amtrak's Texarkana-to-Memphis route was unfortunately defeated as not cost effective because too few would use it. It's a glaring example of how America guarantees public transit failures: We don't fund the system, so few people use it; and because few people use it, we don't fund the system. Imagine, on the other hand, hopping on a 200-mph train in Fayetteville and arriving in downtown Dallas or Kansas City in 2 hours, more cheaply than flying or driving, with no airport hassle. Instead of jamming into an airplane seat or gripping a steering wheel, you could enjoy the scenery, a drink or a dining car meal.

The very worst thing Arkansans could do at this point is permanently subsidize drivers with tax money paid by all Arkansans, especially if the source is sales taxes, which, unlike property or income taxes, hit the poor hardest. Yet this is precisely what Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposes as an amendment to the Constitution, no less, to be voted on this November. Hutchinson wants to make permanent the half-percent "temporary" transportation sales tax Arkansans approved in 2012 that expires in 2022. Per year, this tax provides some $200 million for highways and $100 million for city and county transportation. Despite their inequity, sales taxes are pervasive in Arkansas. According to the Washington-based Tax Foundation, our 9.5 percent combined average state and local sales-tax rate is second-highest in the nation, just behind Tennessee.

Drivers are already the prima donnas of public largesse in the form of hidden subsidies, aka "externalities." The nonprofit International Center for Technology Assessment estimates that America subsidizes drivers to the tune of $8 to $23 per gallon of gasoline. These subsidies enable our automobile addiction, and come in the form of oil industry subsidies, policing, military defense of foreign oil resources, health costs and environmental costs.

Yet drivers fiercely refuse to pay their fair share by selfishly objecting to such user fees as highway tolls and gasoline taxes. The governor's unfair permanent sales tax, for new roads that will only aggravate our transportation problems, should be defeated this November.

Commentary on 03/10/2020

Print Headline: The wrong way forward


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