Thursday, January 28, 2016

No New Roads and A Devil's Bargain

Much has been made of the fact that our state's last gravel highway has finally been paved in 2016, some 60+ years after the Federal Highway Act of 1965. At 16,411 miles of highway, I suppose closing the loop on that last 3.87 miles is a good thing. This particular stretch of road goes through a national forest & approaches a state park. You'll find few bigger fans of state parks and national forests than me.

That said, can we now finally be done with adding more roads? I'm a bit hesitant to criticize this particular paving as it closes the books on a promise to pave all existing highways & can only help tourism in that neck of the woods But let's take a look at some of the numbers pointed out in the linked article:
  • In 1997, the average number of cars that traveled Highway 220 daily was 315.
  • In 2015, the average number of cars that traveled that highway daily was 30. Admittedly, this was during a construction period.
  • The cost to widen the highway to two lanes & build a bridge is $7.7 million.
  • A similar size stretch (3.56 miles) cost $4.5 million to widen & grade in nearby Crawford County.

We are adding roads at a time when other state departments of transportation are proposing the elimination of highway expansion. Ohio, Michigan & California have committed to the 'No New Roads' and/or 'Fix it First' agenda. Like many people & groups, I believe having good roads (really, transportation) has become an essential part of the role of government and is important in economic development. I also believe that too many roads is a poor use of resources, both financial and environmental. These two points of view do not have to be conflicting. In fact, they are not in opposition, despite what the concrete & construction lobby tell you. This is a fiscal and environmentally conservative perspective. Fewer roads = smaller government.

The the most disappointing & heartbreaking part? We know better. We know the historical impact of I-630 & what it did to our city, our neighborhoods. But we're doing it anyway, particularly with the I-30 Crossing proposal. Innumerable people are pointing out the flaw in growing our amount of asphalt but we won't listen. We're operating from the last generation's set of facts. It's operating from last generation's set of facts that causes us to be 49th (or 1st in the bad stuff) all too often. That's just not necessary any longer.

Don't believe we need a 'No New Roads' policy? Take a look at Highway 64, for example. I've had occasion to take Highway 64 recently. Take Exit 88 at Pottsville & head west. You'll find 8.8 miles of five lane the whole way - two lanes each running east & west plus a turn lane that runs the full 8.8. AHTD shows that anywhere from 20,000-25,000 cars travel that part of the highway per day. Every time I've been on 64 it looks like it does on Google Streetview (as below). Go ahead. Follow it via Streetview and tell me we need more roads. I'll wait.  Now that's a bargain galore, right?
Traffic jam

It's looked like this every time I've taken it. Also, why the turn lane?
One point of view is that the Highway 220 undertaking is adding capacity (for traffic, travel, etc.) to our roads. Another way to view it is from the perspective of adding future upkeep & maintenance. Admittedly, most road maintenance comes from heavy truck traffic, not your standard sedan hosting a tourist or grocery getter but some sort of future maintenance is unavoidable. What's also unavoidable? The cost of that maintenance. And where does that money come from?

Well, in the case of finally paving these roads it came from a federal highway grant. That's a good thing, such that it is. My point being that these funds didn't come directly from Arkansas taxpayer coffers. Sure, you say; we the taxpayer ultimately paid for it. Yes, I agree but it didn't come from our very, very limited bucket of funds set aside for road construction. I make this important distinction because of the findings of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Highway Task Force. The most significant of these recommendations, to my mind, is the unprecedented dip into general revenue for roads. As Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane & Arkansas Advocates for Children & Family point out, this is a slippery slope.

However, there is some very limited upside. Rep. Andy Davis writes:
For the first time, general purpose revenue will be used for highway expenses in addition to user fee revenue sources like fuels taxes. Along with this shift in policy should [emphasis added] come additional policy changes aimed at verifying the best possible use of these general funds in addition to the other hundreds of millions collected and spent on highways each year.
The operative word there being 'should'. The title of his article is Highway Department Oversight Needed. I'd shift that a bit & reiterate my call for the elimination of their constitutional independence.

Now here's the devil's bargain:

I'd strongly consider supporting a dip into General Revenue for highways in return for the elimination of AHTD's constitutional independence.

If the I-30 Crossing debate has taught me one thing, it's that a system where citizens can directly hold their elected officials accountable on important public policy is a system where we, the citizen, have a chance at helping shape the public policy we believe is best for our community. That's not the case with an independent transportation department. Look at the Little Rock city board as it relates to this decision. Outreach & advocacy is having an impact. There's a resolution that's being hotly debated. Public meetings are being held. Conversation is happening. Sure, one can argue that the classic delay strategy is being implemented on the public but we are having a (largely civil) conversation. There was an excellent post in the Improve I-30 Crossing Facebook group the other day which solidified my opinion on this thought. It reads:
3) Everything that occurs within the ADHT, the City of Little Rock, and Metroplan is done for political leveraging. Metroplan is generally concerned in designing a better Little Rock and knows all to well about the nefarious effects an I-30 expansion would have. The ADHT has a job—to move cars. We can argue the merits of this all we want, but for the short-term, that role doesn't change and we shouldn't lambaste them for doing their jobs. The City of Little Rock and its officials are simply taking sides based on the opinions of their electorate. If you want a council member to change his views, then change the views of the majority of their district. Simple as that.
This option doesn't currently exist for us, the citizens of Arkansas, on the state level as it relates to highways in our community. We can't expect AHTD to change and begin to institute radical or even minor shifts in practice in its current structure. A radical shift is needed. I'm not so naive as to think our current political climate is such that it will suddenly start to believe that bike lanes, green lanes and congestion pricing will be instituted immediately. But I do know that without a radical change we'll keep getting the same type of Mad Men era thinking.

This devil's bargain would allow that to change.

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