Bonds sought for road work in Arkansas

| 3/9/2007

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said early this month he might support a highway bond program this year after all. At the same time, a bill filed in the state Senate would allow for a ballot issue to authorize $575 million in bonds to cover road repairs.

A couple months after he didn't mention highways in outlining his legislative package to lawmakers, Beebe said he would consider a road package. He said his biggest concern is whether there is broad-based and solid support for a bond issue, The Associated Press reported. The governor said because there will be limited finances to tout the measure to voters, supporters need to be enthusiastic.

The governor's announcement couldn't have come at a better time for Sen. Bobby Glover. The Carlisle, AR, Democrat has offered a bill that would give the Arkansas Highway Commission the authority to issue $575 million in bonds for road work. Voters would have the final say in a special or general election.

A similar bond effort was rejected by voters in 2005. The major stumbling block then was the open-ended nature of the authority, KTHV-TV in Little Rock reported. To alleviate similar concerns, Glover's bill calls for the commission's bond authority to sunset by 2014.

The proposed new bond program would allow the state to borrow money against the federal transportation dollars that come each year to pay for construction. The sale is based on the assumption that federal funding in future years would pay off the bonds. This allows the state to get money needed up front.

Supporters of tapping into bonds to pay for needed transportation projects point out the state is in dire need for road dollars. Officials with the state's Highway and Transportation Department indicate the state has about $19 billion in highway needs during the next decade. But the state has $4 billion in anticipated revenue, the Arkansas News Bureau reported.

Another option advancing through the General Assembly would allow counties and cities more leeway for dealing with transportation issues. Sponsored by Rep. Robby Wills, D-Conway, the bill would allow regional mobility authorities to establish toll roads and initial toll fees.

Voters would need to approve the initial fees. They would not get a say on rate changes.

Wills said the flexibility is needed or bonding companies will not issue bonds for toll roads, the News Bureau reported.

The bill also would prohibit the mobility authorities from selling or leasing roads to private groups and charging drivers to use existing routes.

Wills' bill - HB1698 - received unanimous support in the House early this month. It has been moved to the Senate floor for further consideration. Glover's bill - SB840 - is in the Senate Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs Committee.