Fix in­fra­struc­ture Good roads vi­tal to qual­ity of life

Guest writer

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - JOE QUINN Joe Quinn is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Arkansas Good Roads Foun­da­tion.

In North­west Arkansas, it’s com­mon to hear peo­ple mut­ter, “Traf­fic is re­ally bad to­day.” It’s not un­usual for peo­ple to de­lay their de­par­ture from work to drive at off-peak hours. The in­abil­ity of the lo­cal in­fra­struc­ture to keep up with pop­u­la­tion growth some­times is as much of a topic as the Ra­zor­back of­fense.

In the Arkansas Delta, farm­ers op­er­at­ing heavy equip­ment know which coun­try roads can’t han­dle a lot of weight. Driv­ing the “long way around” to avoid crum­bling roads makes it more dif­fi­cult for farm fam­i­lies to bring prod­uct to mar­ket.

From the Delta to the Ozarks, there are 4,307 bridges main­tained by coun­ties, and 12 per­cent of them are un­able to han­dle the weight of a fully loaded school bus. If you have a child rid­ing a bus in a ru­ral area, you should be think­ing about that num­ber.

Other num­bers to think about: 362 county bridges are struc­turally de­fi­cient and 812 are func­tion­ally ob­so­lete.

Arkansas has the 12th largest high­way sys­tem in the coun­try, but we rank 43rd na­tion­ally in what is spent to main­tain roads. The lack of ad­e­quate fund­ing af­fects ev­ery­one from the farmer, to the bus driver, to the par­ent hus­tling to pick their kids up at school and get them to base­ball prac­tice.

The gap be­tween what we spend and what we need to spend is get­ting wider each year.

Some peo­ple think this only mat­ters to in­dus­tries that profit from high­way con­struc­tion, or the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion that man­ages all this. The re­al­ity is the qual­ity of roads should mat­ter to any­one who drives a car, a school bus, a truck, or a mini­van in a car pool.

At a time when only 18 per­cent of Arkansas roads are in “good” con­di­tion, more than 70 per­cent of the money we spend to im­prove roads comes from con­sump­tion-based fuel-tax rev­enues. As peo­ple drive less and buy more fuel-ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles, we are all us­ing less fuel. That’s fun­da­men­tally a good thing, but it also means de­clin­ing rev­enue for roads.

Over­lay­ing this dis­cus­sion is the fact that 54 per­cent of our high­way fund­ing comes from fed­eral money that is likely to de­crease in com­ing years.

Good roads help busi­ness, tourism, and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. When I drive In­ter­state 49 on a beau­ti­ful fall af­ter­noon, it’s easy to think how that road turned a group of com­mu­ni­ties into a co­he­sive and thriv­ing re­gion. When I drive the new U.S. 70 into Hot Springs I’m amazed at how a nar­row, wind­ing, slightly dan­ger­ous road has been re­placed with a beau­ti­fully de­signed, easy-to-drive stretch of high­way.

Th­ese two roads are a re­minder how a high-qual­ity, thought­fully de­signed stretch of road in any re­gion pulls to­gether com­mu­ni­ties in a way that makes life eas­ier for fam­i­lies, busi­ness, and tourism.

Was build­ing those roads good for con­struc­tion, as­phalt, and pave­ment com­pa­nies? Sure, it was. Did build­ing the high­ways cre­ate con­struc­tion jobs? Ab­so­lutely.

But the larger is­sue is th­ese roads cre­ated a re­gional eco­nomic back­bone. We don’t want to be ranked 43rd na­tion­ally on what we spend on roads when there are so many clear ex­am­ples of why high­ways change qual­ity of life.

In the next few months, the statewide con­ver­sa­tion about high­way fund­ing will deepen. It will be a ma­jor topic dur­ing the leg­isla­tive ses­sion in Jan­uary.

The more we de­lay find­ing ad­e­quate fund­ing to main­tain our ru­ral roads and high­ways, the fur­ther be­hind we fall, and the harder it will be to ad­dress ex­pen­sive prob­lems later. It’s im­por­tant we try to find ad­di­tional fund­ing for our crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture now.

Please pay at­ten­tion in the months ahead as the high­way fund­ing dis­cus­sion in­ten­si­fies. It’s about much more than lay­ing con­crete or as­phalt, it’s about what kind of state we want to leave our grand­chil­dren.

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