Arkansas Department of Transportation officials spent years asking lawmakers for more money for the state’s highways and bridges, often without success.
The past two Novembers have been a lot better for the department.
ARDOT will see roughly $4 billion over the next five years as a result of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Biden Nov. 15. The bill reauthorizes the government’s five-year highway funding bill, but with a lot more money. On an annual basis, ARDOT will receive $200 million more in federal dollars than it’s receiving now, which currently is about $650 million.
More specifically, the bill will send $3.6 billion to Arkansas in Federal-aid Highway Program money and another $278 million dedicated to bridge replacement and repairs. ARDOT also will receive $246 million for public transportation projects, and $54 million to support an electric vehicle charging network. There’s some other grant money for which Arkansas will compete with other states. The package also funds other types of infrastructure, like water projects and broadband, but ARDOT is not in charge of that.
Last November, Arkansas voters passed Issue 1, a constitutional amendment permanently extending a half-cent sales tax for roadways. It will provide another $205 million annually to ARDOT.
In order to sell that program to voters, ARDOT last year created the $7.4 billion Renew Arkansas Highways Program featuring maps and a detailed explanation for how the tax dollars would be spent. Kevin Thornton, ARDOT’s assistant chief of administration, told me the initial plan for this new federal funding is to apply it to those projects, and get them done faster. The department is still waiting for guidance from the Federal Highway Administration regarding how it can spend the money. He pointed out that the increasing federal dollars require an increasing state match, which Arkansas now has available because of the passage of Issue 1.
ARDOT’s newfound abundance is in contrast to its recent past, when its funding had flatlined for years in relation to rising construction costs. Before Issue 1’s passage, Arkansas voters twice had passed measures to provide money for highways, but otherwise the department officials’ trips to the State Capitol often didn’t lead to more funding, or at least not nearly as much as they said they needed. Some other function of state government – schools primarily – always needed more money more quickly.
Unlike with Issue 1, the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is not paid for. Using Congressional Budget Office numbers, the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said the bill would directly add $340 billion to the federal budget deficit. That number increases to $400 billion when indirect costs are added, which doesn’t include interest on all that borrowed money.
Congress could have paid for the spending by raising the gas tax or through another type of “user fee.” Instead, much of it is funded by repurposing unspent COVID funds, which likewise weren’t paid for originally.
The government has borrowed so many trillions of dollars during the pandemic that some could say it might as well borrow another $400 billion and at least pave some highways, rather than just keep giving the money away. Still, it would be nice if, for once, Americans paid for the government they’re getting, rather than passing the bill on to future generations.
As for the politics, the bill passed with 69 votes in the Senate, including 19 Republicans. That’s almost 40 percent of the Republican caucus, so in that chamber the bill legitimately can be described as bipartisan.
In the House, it got caught up in the fight over the Democrats’ other, larger, grab bag full of policies, otherwise known as President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. That package at one time totaled $3.5 trillion but since has been cut to $1.5 trillion. Only 13 House Republicans voted for the infrastructure bill, defying orders from their party leadership and risking criticism from former President Trump.
None of the members of Arkansas’ all-Republican congressional delegation voted for the bill, but Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was glad it passed.
So were the folks at ARDOT, who’ve had a couple of good Novembers.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.