The assignment of $1.54 billion in special highway project funding contained within a road tax plan on the Nov. 6 election ballot includes $648 million for the central Arkansas area, $375 million for Northwest Arkansas and $0 for the Fort Smith metro area.
There is perhaps no clearer indication of the lack of political influence from the Fort Smith metro area than the “$0” allocation. The state’s third-largest metro area containing the state’s second largest city receives $0 in special highway project funds.
This reality began when the Arkansas Legislature in 2011 approved voter consideration of a Constitutional amendment that would issue up to $1.3 billion in bonds financed by a half-cent increase in the state sales tax. Using existing revenue, the plan would spend $1.8 billion in four-lane project improvements around the state.
It should be noted that passage of the tax plan is anything but certain. A recent Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll found the plan with 49.5% against the increase, and 42% who would vote for it. The figures were little changed from a March 26 poll that showed 50.5% against the plan.
How is that the Fort Smith metro area was handed $0? There are many reasons, but – at risk of oversimplification – one must consider the almost two decades of area citizens sending legislators to Little Rock based more on church affiliation than political ability. Also, an inability or unwillingness by Fort Smith regional leaders to be more proactively engaged with Arkansas’ political machine has resulted in this region not having an Arkansas Highway Commissioner. No commissioner, no seat at the money table. $0
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders, Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority Director Ivy Owen and other regional leaders are attempting to put a happy face on $0. They will do this using two arguments.
First, they want area residents to believe that city and county sharing of a voter-approved road tax plan will bring an estimated $26.36 million to Sebastian County and its cities, and an estimated $11.74 million to Crawford County and its cities. They will urge area residents to vote for the plan because this is money that will not come to the region if the plan fails. Don’t be surprised when they suggest that voter approval of the plan will bring more than $55.6 million to the region (Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Scott and Sebastian counties) in tax-revenue turnback money.
The second tactic has Fort Smith metro leaders distracting area residents from the $0 embarrassment by suggesting that more than $51 million in federal stimulus dollar have been sent to area road projects in recent years – primarily for Interstate 49 work through Chaffee Crossing.
Both of these points are disingenuous, if not insulting.
All counties will receive tax-revenue turnback money if the road tax is approved. All things being equal, the road tax plan will provide $648 million for the central Arkansas area, $375 million for Northwest Arkansas and $0 for the Fort Smith metro area.
As to the stimulus dollars, yes, we did get a nice lump of funding for I-49 work through Chaffee Crossing. But a simple review of state transportation funding in the past few years — to include the millions for interstate widening between Conway and Little Rock and U.S. 412 work in Northwest Arkansas — clearly shows that the extra I-49 funding at best created an equal funding stream with other regions. Again, all things being equal, the road tax plan will provide $648 million for the central Arkansas area, $375 million for Northwest Arkansas and $0 for the Fort Smith metro area.
This in no way should read as critical of the special project funding directed toward central Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas. Their ability to be politically positioned for the funding advantage is a credit to the collaborative ability of their respective business and civic leaders.
Business and civic leaders in the Fort Smith metro area have to put a happy face on receiving $0 in special project funds. But they are in a box. To support the plan requires them with a straight face to explain to Fort Smith area residents that receiving $0 out of $1.54 billion in special project funding is somehow a good thing. And if they don’t publicly support the plan, they run a great risk of further — if that is possible — distancing themselves from the table of political influence.
I don't envy the position of Fort Smith area leaders, nor do I have a solution for their political pickle. Truth be told, if in their shoes I’d probably do the same grin-and-bear-it routine.
For Fort Smith metro residents, it could get worse than $0.
If a majority of voters in Fort Smith metro counties do not support the plan, yet it passes statewide, then state highway officials and business and political leaders in central and Northwest Arkansas will have a new political reality from which to exert leverage on future funding programs and budget decisions.
If that happens, $0 could be more certain than surprising.