Voters reject extension of highway bonds in Arkansas

| 12/14/2005

Arkansas voters soundly defeated a ballot issue Tuesday, Dec. 13, to extend bonds for road and bridge work throughout the state.

Question No. 1 on the statewide ballot sought to extend the interstate highway bond program approved by voters in 1999. The $575 million bond issue is being repaid with federal highway repair money and a 4-cent-per-gallon diesel tax increase. Under that plan, reconstruction on more than 380 of the state’s 655 miles of interstates is scheduled for completion next year.

“By next year, 73 percent of the state’s interstate system will be in good or very good condition with only 14 percent rated poor or mediocre,” Gov. Mike Huckabee said during a recent news conference at the capitol.

However, 60 percent of votes cast were in opposition to the highway bonds.

The extension would not have affected taxes, but would have given the Arkansas Highway Commission the standing authority to issue additional bonds in the future without a public vote.

Supporters, including the governor, said it was needed to keep interstate highways in good shape and that federal and state highway funds – at least $72 million annually – aren’t enough to keep up with repairs without going into debt.

Groups like the Arkansas Trucking Association, however, were against the plan.

The motor carriers and related businesses in the state formed a political committee, dubbed Citizens Against No.1, to oppose the bond measure.

They said it would take away the rights of voters to approve each attempt to sell more bonds. Voters, though, would have been able to petition against the measure had it passed. In addition, the Legislature could have referred a proposal overturning it to voters.

The chairwoman of the Highway Commission, Prissy Hickerson, said Tuesday night she doesn’t want to see the state’s interstates deteriorate to the point they were six years ago.

To help prevent that from happening, Hickerson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette the commission would consider transferring maintenance money from non-interstate road projects.

Hickerson said the agency previously has shifted non-interstate maintenance money to interstates. In 1998, the commission sent $64 million in federal highway funding to interstate maintenance.

“If it means transferring money, like we did in ’98, then we’ll just have to do it again,” Hickerson told the Democrat-Gazette.