Sunday, October 25, 2015

My Call for Ending the Constitutional Independence of AHTD

There's a good, or at least interesting, conversation happening on Twitter between the Arkansas Times Max Brantley, AHTD Director Scott Bennett & Johnnie Chamberlain of the Trails of Arkansas blog. I encourage you to take a look.  It's been screen-capped at the Facebook Improve I-30 group.

This discussion is well covered in a Times post this morning. John Brummett covers this in today's paper, as well. I don't want all of my MoveArkansas posts to solely focus on the I-30 mess - though it's certainly time well spent as this is Urban Renewal II & a scheme that will only require billions of dollars in future maintenance that, to date, is unfunded.

There are a few things, however, that I think are worth additional comments.
First -

I'll add my personal discomfort at having AHTD contractors with a vested interest in as large of an I-30 expansion as possible leading the public hearings.

I arrived at the hearing about 5:30, 90 or so minutes after it officially began. I quickly ran into friends who had been there for some time. Most of them (at least five different people, probably more) quickly began telling me about their interactions with the facilitators, how they were largely unaware of alternative transportation options. They were, by all accounts, polite & professional but just not familiar with options beyond more lanes. I wasn't surprised. This is how we as a society train engineers. We have no schools of planning in our state. Engineering schools, on the other hand remain strong. Strong Town's Chuck Marohn has covered this ad infinitum so I'll just link to one post on this subject. Peruse his blog for innumerable posts on this discussion. Given that information & my own personal experience with these types of 'hearings' I chose to simply review the materials and make comments vs. any Q&A/interrogation of staff, be they contract or full-time AHTD personnel.

Sure, having representatives from the contracted engineering firm present make some sense. I didn't count the number of people representing AHTD vs. contractors but I can tell you it felt like they far outweighed staff.

It felt like the fox was watching the hen house. And with perception being reality, I hope future meetings are facilitated by those who are directly accountable to the public. Neutral, informed public servants will do nicely, thank you. -

Perception, of course, is less of an issue when you are a constitutionally independent agency. Such independence creates a different set of stakeholders. Imagine this proposal with an agency directly embedded in the tree of state government. Independence made a certain amount of sense in the earliest years of transportation & road development. It stopped making sense decades ago.

Second -

In the last week, Tim has covered alternatives to freeway widening in detail. This is far from the first time such articles have been published or linked. I wrote about tearing down I-630 in 2010 for the Arkansas Time Big Ideas issue, so this isn't a new concept.

I was struck by the above tweet. I'm not sure if it was meant as being aghast at such a notion or if there was truly a lack of awareness. Likely it was meant as sarcasm to what many may see as a ridiculous notion. Nonetheless, this reinforced the perception that AHTD is more focused on the Highway part of their name than the Transportation part. This is a good time to note that even the name, Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department, is far behind the more modern nomenclature other states use (State Name) Department of Transportation (D.O.T.).  Another disadvantage to being beholden to the 1952 Mack-Blackwell Amendment. Admittedly, their mission is solid but it's not feeling as if it's being put into practice. For that matter, the existing organizational chart lists the Citizens of Arkansas at the top. The ones I'm hearing from don't seem to feel like we're being put first. Director Bennett asks KATV on Twitter to hear from someone in support of this plan. He hashtags the tweet #fairandbalanced. Outside of those invested to profit from the expansion, I haven't seen anyone in support of this effort. I'm sure someone does, but they're awful quiet.

Third -
Billions in maintenance. So says Metroplan. Director Bennett says he doesn't think so. A billion here, a billion there. Pretty soon we're talking about real money. Rather than quibble over the exact amount, I will simply note that maintenance will be required regardless of what expansion occurs. As noted above, the Connecting Arkansas 10-year fund CANNOT be used for maintenance. So, where does that money come from? Five plans have been proposed. The Highway Bill is a mess. Congress isn't likely to do much more than kick the can down the road for the foreseeable future.

Overbuilding our freeways buries us deeper in the Growth Ponzi Scheme. Again, I refer you to Marohn who has written extensively and exhaustively on the issue.

Finally - (and maybe I buried the lede here)
It's time to eliminate AHTD's constitutional independence. I cannot imagine any other state agency doubling down on an idea that has such opposition. AHTD can do this because of their separate and unequal status. As citizens, our legislators are of little help in this scenario. Nor is the governor or even the five Highway Commissioners. Sure, they can put some pressure on staff and the agency but ultimately there's not a lot of accountability.

Those on the right and left should support this as it will lead to more accountability and perhaps efficiency. In public policy circles you read about agencies being 'captured' by interest groups. Such capture is even more challenging to escape when there is a lower level of accountability.

AHTD has 10 years to plan and build a variety of roads & improvements. Going back to the drawing board is going to put a serious crimp in their limited time frame for the Connecting Arkansas program, scheduled to end in November 2022. But if such a proposal were on the ballot in November 2016 and effective January 1, 2017 there would still be approximately half the program life remaining under a new, more accountable system. Sure, many of the plans would be well underway but the citizens of Arkansas deserve a more accountable, more modern approach to both government and transportation. It is time to act.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, AHTD operates with impunity. What I want to know is where are the real money people in LR on this issue? Where is the Governor? Where are the local politicians? What say the Mayor? Looks to me like the AHTD has decided and it is a done deal....the people with any influence are mum.