Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Modest Proposal - aka 'lane-scaping'

Anything can happen as we learned Friday when the president signed the first highway bill in over two decades that extends more than 24 months. In those last two decades Congress has been kicking the can down the road as it relates to transportation. All the while our infrastructure continues to crumble. The Department of Transportation has said 32% of our roads are in poor or mediocre condition and the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. a D+ in infrastructure. I'll take the latter with a grain of salt as they have a bit of self-interest in their report but the larger point of neglect is well taken.

It don't grow on trees
One result of the new Highway Bill is that our fine state is expected to receive $50 million in additional funding for highways in the each of the next five years. 250 million unexpected dollars. Mana from heaven? Of course, there's a catch.

We must provide an approximate 20% match. Frankly, that seems fair to me. Skin in the game & all that. A 20% match of $50 million a year is $10 million a year (look at me, I promised only Tim would do math but here I go). I have a suggestion on where you can find some of the match we don't have:


Exactly how much money can be saved building out to only four (eight total) lanes vs. the five (ten total) AHTD would prefer? I can't seem to put my finger on the exact number of millions but whatever it is (and I suspect the number is high) can be moved to the 20% match required to give us that needed $10 million a year. This money can then be used for other, more needy & worthy projects as allowed by the legislation that created the Connecting Arkansas program. Or maybe with some creative accounting we could use some of the funding for the $900 million needed for the Great River Bridge, or any unexpected upgrades now that I-555 is 'official' or (and call me crazy!) transportation alternatives besides expanding roads.

For what it's worth, I think the three lanes we have work fine but I'm a realist. AH(T)D and the concrete lobby/flat earthers ARE going to get something out of this. They want all five lanes (each way). Moving it down to four would be a victory, if smaller than our preferred outcome. The unexpected additional funding provided by the new Highway Bill and its mandatory match seems like an opportunistic time to further our argument.

Logical arguments aren't winning the day, unfortunately. We've all tried to point out the vast amount of financial resources maintenance of the bridge lane expansion is going to require. As  $4 Billion maintenance estimates doesn't seem to scare anyone off.  Neither does the fact that Vehicle Miles Traveled continue to shrink for the ninth year in a row.  Nor is the fact that the gas tax wasn't indexed for inflation & thus isn't producing the equitable revenue as it did when it was set at 18.4 cents a gallon in 1993. The indexing concern gets a lot of lip service from all sides but no one realistically thinks the political climate for a 'tax increase' will exist in at least a decade.

Given these facts, maybe a better argument is for trimming the number of lanes (now forever called 'lanescaping' - trademark pending) and to use the allocated funds to match the manna of the Highway Bill.

"Hey! You guys just found out you need $20 million a year. I know where you can save money in both construction & maintenance cost all the while look like you're actually listening to what the public wants"

The Connecting Arkansas program is a 10 year tax passed in 2012. The time frame for the match fits. Sure, the Governor has his Blue Ribbon Highway Committee but he's said any proposal must be revenue neutral. This match is revenue neutral. It's so simple, I'm sure it will never happen.

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