Half-cent sales tax projects coming into fruition

story by Jamie Smith
jsmith@thecitywire.com

Often times when a new tax is started, it can be hard for taxpayers to see the visual benefits of their money being used by the government. Or at least, it takes a really long time for that evidence to be apparent.

The half-cent sales tax that was approved by voters in November 2012 starts being collected July 1 and will last for 10 years. The projects that will be funded with the largest portion of that money have already been decided, planned and are ready to move forward when the money starts to roll in.

“Revenue will start to pour in around August because there is about a two-month delay between the time Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration collects the money and allocates the money,” said Danny Straessle, assistant public information office for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD).

According to the AHTD, 70% of the money will go toward improvements to the state highway system, 30% of the money will go to local governments and will be split-15% for the county and 15% for local communities. (Link here for the estimated allocation of that local money.)

Straessle said the programs are referred to as the Connecting Arkansas Program because it’s literally making connections between other projects, either ongoing or planned.

OTHER MONEY, OTHER PROJECTS
There are also several projects happening in the area in the next few years that are funded by federal money and bonds issued as part of the 2011 Interstate Rehabilitation Program. Some of those projects are intertwined with the projects funded by the half-cent sales tax, which is why we are discussing them here.

The Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) documents how the state plans to use specific federal dollars. If the money is not used within the assigned timeframe, the money is lost to the state, Straessle said.

“STIP funding is our traditional means of funding highway projects – both improvements of what we already have AND new projects. The program is an 80/20 split. The federal government provides 80% of the funding and the state of Arkansas provides the 20% match,” he said.

The current STIP is for the timeframe 2013 – 2016 and can be found at this link.

The Interstate Rehabilitation Program is from the 2011 voter-approved bond issuance for Interstate highway improvements to existing highways. Those projects can be found at this link.

BETTER BELLA VISTA TRAFFIC
Anyone who travels to Bella Vista knows that traffic on U.S. 71 can be snarly at best. This project’s purpose is to make traffic safer and more efficient by moving traffic from the Missouri state line to I-540 south of Bella Vista.

Although no official timeline has been established, this project is essentially ready to go, Straessle said. The design work is already complete.

“Initially we are only constructing the two northbound lanes of what will ultimately become a four-lane, access-controlled (Interstate-type) facility,” he said. “No funding has been identified for the southbound lanes. When the northbound lanes are open, we will run traffic in both directions- similar to a two-lane highway.”

There are also two related construction projects underway in conjunction with this project that are funded with STIP money. Those projects include a bypass around Hiwasse and construction will complete interchanges with Highway 72 as well as the two northbound lanes between the north and south interchanges.

Another project picks up where the other ends and extends the bypass to Benton County Road 34.

SPRINGDALE BYPASS
The AHTD is mid-way through the design process on the Springdale bypass, which means there is no timeline for when this project will be let to contract, Straessle said.

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The estimated cost for this project is $150 million from the half-cent sales tax, which will fund what is expected to be a four-lane, access-controlled interstate-type structure between I-540 and Arkansas Highway 112.

There are a total of 17 projects included in the I-540 corridor improvements. Many of those are paid for with the half-cent sales tax, with some coming from other sources. Much of the half-cent sales tax will go towards widening I-540.

The total cost is $370 million and some of the projects are expected to begin later this year. To see more detail on the projects, view the PDF here.

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