If support for Proposed Constitutional Amendment No. 1 is lukewarm in the part of Arkansas where Gov. Mike Beebe was raised and went to college, it likely is because the project list to be funded by the $1.8 billion program includes only two major highways in that region.
One of the Northeast Arkansas projects — the widening of U.S. 412 to four lanes between Paragould and Walnut Ridge — won’t directly benefit Jonesboro, the largest city in the region, and the priority of the other is disputed by various area leaders.
The latter would be the completion of widening to four lanes of Arkansas 18 between Jonesboro and Blytheville, a link to Interstate 55. The problem is that’s not how most Jonesboro drivers reach I-55, instead following U.S. 63 toward Memphis. That route, already four lanes, has been known as the "Future I-555" since 1997.
Interstate designation now depends only on completion of a service road connection between Payneway and Arkansas 75. That’s necessary to give farmers an alternate access road across the St. Francis floodway.
The lack of an access road doesn’t substantially affect traffic on U.S. 63, but the failure to complete the I-555 project is a burr under the saddle of some area citizens. Jonesboro is not only the largest city in Northeast Arkansas, it’s the largest city in the state without an interstate highway, and many local leaders believe that the lack of 4-lane highways to and from Jonesboro has been an obstacle to development and industrial recruiting.
Highway officials counter by pointing to progress on Arkansas 226, which in the near future will give Jonesboro a complete 4-lane link to Central Arkansas. But that was promised in 1992 and was long left on the back burner until local leaders and the governor applied some extra heat.
Furthermore, as pointed out by a state highway department planner in a recent interview with The Jonesboro Sun, it took 50 years for U.S. 67 to be made four lanes from North Little Rock to 226. Actually, it may have been a bit longer than that. When I made my first trip from Hot Springs to Jonesboro in 1963, the 4-lane 67-167 ended just short of Cabot.
Over the years, northeastern Arkansas residents have often supported highway programs without getting a fair share of the benefits. I-540 in Northwest Arkansas didn’t take 50 years to build, at least in part because state highway dollars were diverted from the northeastern region. The I-555 project has been done almost exclusively with earmarked federal dollars.
Mike Cameron, a Jonesboro highway contractor and member of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee, contends that the state won’t help complete the I-555 project because John Ed Regenold of Armorel, who represents northeastern Arkansas on the state Highway Commission, isn’t for it and has made the Arkansas 18 widening a higher priority.
The two men clashed at a recent meeting of the commission in Jonesboro, and Regenold denied holding the I-555 project back. He and other highway officials argue that the real problem is the availability of funding.
That’s always the case, though. Priorities must be set, and the completion of I-555 should be a higher priority than Arkansas 18 if traffic volume is considered.
Whether or not that dispute will change many votes on proposed Amendment 1, the lack of NEA projects on the list certainly could.
However, the proposal would provide more than $700 million in new state turnback revenue, which would be shared with every city and county in the state. It would also create a $20-million-a-year State Aid Street Fund, providing grants to cities for local street and bridge projects.
For example, Craighead County would receive an estimated $695,627 annually, and municipalities in the county would share a total of almost $1.4 million. That’s certainly a significant benefit.
One other problem for the proposal, not only in NEA but statewide, could be that its funding source is a general revenue tax, rather than one based on use. Traditionally, Arkansas highway programs have been financed by user fees, mainly gasoline and diesel taxes, but that hasn’t been working well of late as drivers and their vehicles have become more fuel-efficient.
This proposal would use a temporary (10 years) sales tax of one-half percent to fund a program for construction or improvements of four-lane highways in the state. Included would be a bond issue of up to $1.3 billion. It would not raise taxes on groceries, medicine or gasoline but would dedicate 1 cent of the existing motor fuel tax to establish the State Aid Street Fund.
Using a general revenue source means, though, that drivers, including those behind the wheels of big trucks, would not necessarily pay any more for the program than any other citizens. An unrelated program extending a tax on diesel fuel was passed by the voters last year.
The question may come down to whether Arkansas is ready to pay for its highways with general revenue.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.