NWA Editorial: Leading the Way

Highway panel begins to map out road proposal

Is the road to improved transportation in Arkansas paved with higher taxation?

The Arkansas Legislature didn't want any part of such an outcome, having rejected a proposal sponsored by state Rep. Dan Douglas of Bentonville for a bond issue financed by a 6.5 percent tax on wholesale fuel prices. That would have raised about $200 million annually, but only after the state's voters got a chance to weigh in on the matter.

What's the point?

The Arkansas Highway Commission is serving the state by pressing for a road funding program voters can consider on the ballot in 2018.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson supported the measure.

A majority of state lawmakers weren't in the mood for even a hint of new taxation. Once upon a time, asking voters to consider funding highways was considered leadership. Now, it's feared as something that might fuel the wrath of anti-tax activists. So no, Arkansans, in this case, your opinion wasn't valued.

Voting against that measure were Northwest Arkansas lawmakers Bob Ballinger of Hindsville, Kim Hendren of Gravette, Grant Hodges of Rogers, Robin Lundstrum of Elm Springs, Austin McCollum of Bentonville, Clint Penzo of Springdale.

Not voting were Jim Dotson of Bentonville, Charlene Fite of Van Buren, Greg Leding of Fayetteville, David Whitaker of Fayetteville,

But now the Arkansas Highway Commission is working on a bypass, and not one made of concrete. This is a political bypass, as in attempting to go directly to Arkansas voters with a highway funding plan. Early this month the highway commissioners -- which include Northwest Arkansans Philip Taldo and Dick Trammel -- agreed to pursue a ballot initiative for 2018 that would raise up to $400 million annually for road construction.

Douglas last month told an audience of rural development leaders that if it's left to the Legislature, "when we start having bridges collapse and people killed, then we'll start funding highways."

If lawmakers won't get aboard, the commission hopes to hitch a ride with voters.

Exactly what the commission's funding plan will look like remains to be seen. The commission has charted a destination, but is still studying the map to figure out a route to get there. Whether Arkansas voters are in the mood to provide more funding is about as certain as the intentions of a driver whose left-turn signal has been going for the last two miles.

But the lawmakers were wrong and the commission is right on this: Voters in the next General Election ought to have a highway funding proposal in front of them. Arkansas has too many needs to simply let two, four or six years go by without addressing them. Here in Northwest Arkansas, it's easy to recognize that even as we witness a fairly strong program of highway development based on a 2011 highway funding program.

It's likely Northwest Arkansas will be well-represented in any collection of projects the commission might identify for the new spending. They'll want votes from this region.

It's our hope, too, that new funding won't be entirely devoted to the usual wider and wider interstates and state highways. Ultimately, Northwest Arkansas needs to develop a realistic way to move people without adding exponentially to the congestion. Mass transit will be a crucial part of the region's future, even if it's hard for some people to see now. Could there be an opportunity for a public-private partnership to get a robust mass transit system going in the region? Lawmakers did pass a measure to rename the agency as the Arkansas Department of Transportation, perhaps recognizing not every solution has to be measured by the number of lanes involved.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. It's a long sojourn to the 2018 General Election ballot. Whatever the commission develops, a movement to get it on the ballot will have to obtain 68,000 signatures from Arkansas voters once it's format is approved by the powers that be in state government.

It's no guarantee that whatever the Highway Commission develops will be worth supporting, but we appreciate the effort to give Arkansans some options for its transportation future. Lawmakers didn't see fit to even ask their constituents. Maybe they're happy letting someone else do the work and risk the political capital.

But if a funding plan passes, you can bet they'll show up for the ribbon cuttings.

NWA editorial: Leading the way

Highway panel begins to map out road proposal