Plans for a half-cent sales tax increase for statewide expansion of a four-lane highway system could prove a tough sell at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce First Friday Breakfast on Aug. 3.
Part of that difficulty could stem from the fact that Sebastian and Crawford counties will not receive any of the $1.548 billion in special project funding that the tax will create. The central Arkansas area is estimated to receive $648 million in special project funding, and Northwest Arkansas could get $375 million. (See complete list of special projects at end of this story.)
Additionally, a recent Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll found the plan with 49.5% who say they would vote against the increase, and 42% who would vote for it. (The last poll was reported on July 24, but remained consistent with a March 26 poll, which showed 50.5% disapproval.)
On Feb. 2, 2011, the Arkansas Legislature authorized the sales tax election for the proposed constitutional amendment that would sunset in 10 years. Because the tax will be voted on as a constitutional amendment, the legislature will not have the power to extend it.
Legislators in the Fort Smith metro area supporting the legislation that authorized the election were Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith; Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren; Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris; Rep. Stephanie Malone, R-Fort Smith; Rep. Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith; Rep. Leslee Milam Post, D-Ozark; Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron; and Rep. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.
The list of special projects was not created when the legislation was approved by the Arkansas Legislature.
NORTHWEST ARKANSAS IMPROVEMENTS
Despite the poll data and no special projects in the Fort Smith metro area, Arkansas Highway Commissioner Dick Trammel believes area residents should take encouragement from two key Northwest Arkansas projects that would happen if the tax is approved.
Trammel and Joe Shipman, Arkansas Highway Department District 4 Engineer, will address members of the Fort Smith Chamber in the Reynolds Room at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. The breakfast begins at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, and a Q&A period will follow their presentation.
First, the Bella Vista Bypass in Benton County, which will receive $100 million if the tax is approved, will complete an initial two lanes needed for the Interstate 49 project.
Secondly, the Fayetteville to Rogers location, which will receive $125 million upon approval, will complete the six-lane widening between the two cities, also assisting with I-49, Trammel said.
Trammel estimated the entire tax package at $1.8 billion in additional revenue for highway projects, and said Sebastian and Crawford counties would receive a share of the overall package, referring voters to the MoveArkansasForward.com website for details.
AREA CITY, COUNTY MONEY
According to the site, Sebastian County will receive $7.555 million spread out over 10 years, while Fort Smith will collect around $15.355 million during the same period, if the tax is approved. Crawford County will receive $5.699 million over 10 years, while Van Buren will gain $4.059 million during the same period.
City and county totals for Sebastian County will finish at $2.636 million per year (or $26.362 million across 10 years). Crawford County will finish at $1.174 million per year (or $11.745 million across 10 years).
Special project dollars, however, will not be spent within the two county’s borders.
“The Highway Department made their recommendation to the Commission on that, and the basis of that recommendation is that these are high-cost, high-traffic areas in need of repair,” Trammel said.
When asked how he would respond to those concerned that none of the monies would be disbursed to the state's second largest city and third largest metro area, Trammel pointed to Chaffee Crossing.
“I can address that easy,” Trammel said. “Chaffee Crossing is where we spent the most money out of current funding for the whole area. I’m a Chaffee Crossing fan, but while we were doing that, we had to let these special projects go because they’re expensive.”
On Wednesday, Trammel did not have an exact number regarding the total amount of funds spent at Chaffee Crossing. However, in 2009, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department received one-time funding of $352 million in federal stimulus money for highway work.
I-49 received approximately $71.6 million of these funds, while the Fort Smith region (Crawford, Franklin, Logan, and Sebastian counties) claimed a combined total of $51.68 million.
By focusing on the Bella Vista Bypass and Fayetteville to Rogers expansion, Trammel believes I-49 will have a better chance at becoming a reality, since the two projects tie in.
“I don’t believe in building a road to nowhere,” Trammel added. “This will put us 15 years ahead and support 40,000 jobs, and the benefits should last 40 or 50 years. ... We have needs of around $24 billion in the next 20 years, and based on the income we have now plus this, we’ll have $4 (billion) to $5 billion (over a 10-year period). This is a terrific investment for the people of Arkansas. I would prefer not to have a tax, but to me, this is more of an investment everyone will benefit from.”
FORT SMITH SUPPORT
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders said that he would refrain from comment about the lack of special project funding until he’d seen the breakdown of projects. Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman was out the office Wednesday.
Fort Smith Administrator Ray Gosack, however, was encouraged by the project selections.
“Our region has been supporting completion of the Bella Vista Bypass since it is a high priority for the I-49 project. Both our Planning and Development board and our RITA board have supported that project, so although it is not in our immediate region, it will provide benefit to our region.”
Gosack continued: “Missouri is completing its portion of the I-49 to Kansas City project and then there’s the portion from Bentonville to I-40. That last five-mile stretch in the Bella Vista area has not been completed, and it’s the only missing link between Kansas City and I-40. The thinking is that getting that done makes the I-49 project more viable. Each step we take with I-49 gets us more entrenched in the project, and it becomes more likely other steps will be completed.”