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Highway Dollars and Sense: A Safer Way Home

dollars and sense

A Safer Way Home

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Ed. note: In November 2020, Arkansas voters will have the power to decide if the state should keep collecting a half-cent sales tax in order to raise over $205 million annually for state highways and bridges, plus an additional $43 million each for counties and cities. In each issue leading up to the election, we’ll be covering the potential impact of that decision. In this month’s issue, we tackle how the money we spend on infrastructure is money invested in our own safety. We encourage you to educate yourself before you vote and to help educate your friends, family, neighbors and coworkers who will help Arkansas make critical choices about our state’s infrastructure. Read Part 1 of this special series "Highway Dollars and Sense" on the political history of the half-cent sales tax for infrastructure and Part 2 on the necessity of roads to our everyday lives.

About 12 months ago, Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared a state of emergency when the Arkansas River rose over 40 feet. The Army Corps of Engineers were looking at maps of northwest Arkansas and projections of which highways would be under water in the event of a 200-year flood. The levees broke; the waters rose. The historic flooding was the top news story in the state for 2019.

Arkansans will remember that routes all over the state shut down. Actually 40 segments of highways had to close because of flooding. It left lasting damage long after the water receded. A whole section of asphalt was carried away with the current, leaving a huge, dangerous hole in Highway 155 near Dardanelle.

Six months later, repairs were still underway.

While we are in the middle of a public health crisis, the safety of citizens is again top of mind. The last three months of reckoning with the global pandemic, COVID-19, have been a reminder that a disaster can wash away the ground beneath our feet and prompt us to build something stronger, safer from the crater.

Safe spaces

Issue 1 will make permanent a half-cent sales tax that Arkansans already pay in order to provide over $205 million annually for state highways and bridges, plus an additional $43 million each for counties and cities.

There is an economic case to be made for why we should make sure there is money in the purse to build and maintain highways. There is practical case to be made about how much we depend on surface transportation. But before all of that is the safety case.

As you read this, ambulances, fire trucks, police cars are responding to calls for help and coming to the rescue by way of rubber and road. We expect that when we need them, the sirens will sound, the traffic will part, and way will be clear.

In a few short weeks, we hope to send children back to classrooms on school buses.

The half-cent tax will pay to maintain a safe space for first responders to save lives, and it will also pay to create a safe space for students to travel to school. And without that money, it isn’t a given that the roads and bridges will be safe spaces.

In Arkansas, of the 12,902 bridges, 626 (or 4.9 percent) have one of the key elements in poor or worse condition. Sixteen more bridges today are classified as structurally deficient than five years ago. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association reports that Arkansas ranks 25th in the number of structurally deficient bridges. Some of our worst bridges were built more than 60 years ago and bear more than 100,000 crossings every day. And the price tag to repair the 2,598 bridges in need? $1.7 billion.

Even before the great flood of 2019, the roads that carried Arkansas students to classrooms on Monday mornings and football fields on Friday nights weren’t all that smooth. In the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the nation’s bridges a C+ and the roads, a D. Seventeen percent of Arkansas’s 102,603 miles of public roads were found to be poor condition.

Making the grade

To improve the infrastructure, there is a lot that can be done. Some basic road technology are rumble strips, crash cushions and guard rails for those precarious miles through the Ozarks. And sometimes the solution is a re-envisioning of the landscape. An example is about 50 miles from the Arkansas Trucking Association office in Little Rock.

Highway 70 was built in 1956 to wind through the Ouachita Mountains. The accidents on the highway increased over the years with more traffic from Interstate 30, but a recent widening project improved the way vehicles could travel more safely. The project widened the highway to five lanes for 17.5 miles. Four bridges were replaced. Curves were straightened. Hills were flattened. Shoulders were widened. And a traffic signal was installed at the intersection with State Highway 128. The result is longer sightlines, less inhibited by the mountains and forests, so drivers can see the route ahead.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how ballot issues can impact our lives beyond election day, but voting yes for Issue 1 is really just a vote for improving the route ahead.

Maybe the Highway 70 upgrades are a long way from your neighborhood. The funds collected from the half-cent sales tax will come back into your community no matter where you are in the state though because Issue 1 does not only address the most highly-travelled routes. The funds will be divvied up between state highways (70 percent), county roads (15 percent) and city streets (15 percent.)

It’s unlikely that we’ll see another 200-year flood and find 40 sections of Arkansas roads buried under the crest. But the roads don’t just need our attention and investment after a disaster, even the best things take their toll: the summer storms, thousands of vacationers driving to camp sites, the sweet cargo of peaches and apples that we bake into holiday pies. These are precious moments to Arkansans. We should be willing to pay what it costs to fill the potholes, repair the bridges, and smooth the paths we travel. It will ensure better roads to work, play, school and a safer way home.

Luckily, a safer way home is on the ballot.

At Arkansas Trucking Association, we encourage you to make sure you are registered to vote, know your polling place, and learn about the issues.


Part 1: Why the Choice is Yours

Part 2: Mythbusting and Life Saving on the Essentiality of Open Roads

Part 3: A Safer Way Home

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Arkansas Trucking Association
PO Box 3476 (72203)
1401 West Capitol Ave.
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Little Rock, AR 72201

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