LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - As you travel around the state of Arkansas, perhaps through the mountains to Branson or across to Memphis, a few bumps will make you ask, "Seriously, these highways must be the worst!"
But the answer to that musing raises a serious question.
When our taxes pay for the roads, do we get our money's worth? Or is the concrete just a little better on the other side of the bridge?
That line of questioning leads to another question. How do you compare roads from place to place?
“Your top layers of whatever product is on top of the road is only as good as the sub-grade,” said Park Estes, executive director of the Arkansas Asphalt Pavement Association. “Just like anything in life. It's only as good as your base.”
As the guy representing the men and women who build and repair roads around here, he’s the expert we want to ask when it comes to determining how good or bad the roads are.
“Right now, unfortunately, we have about 80 percent of our roads in the state of Arkansas that are in less-than-good condition,” he said as he watched crews laying down pavement on the Highway 70 widening project in Garland County. “We've got about 33 percent that are in poor condition right now.”
Those are bad numbers and they don't compare well with our neighboring states.
The Reason Foundation has been ranking states by how efficiently they spend the money they take in and by the condition of the roads with their annual Highway Survey. Between that survey and his expertise, Estes can tell us if we really are the worst.
“I wouldn't say that Arkansas is the worst, but I think we all share a dilemma of how to maintain roads because of lack of funding,” Estes said.
The city of Texarkana is famous for being partly in Texas and Arkansas, so it can perfectly illustrate the differences in road funding from state to state. The roads on the Texas side of the border are part of the largest state-funded highway system in the U.S., and yet the highway survey says the Lone Star State ranks 19th in getting a return on their road investment.
All of the states around Arkansas rate better than the Natural State, except Louisiana. If those figures give you some mild road rage, the highway department wants you to weigh in on how to make it better.
“We have a survey on our website asking each person to list a couple of priorities that they think exists,” said Danny Straessle, spokesperson for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.
The survey goes on to ask how would you like to pay for those priorities, with five of the six options involve some kind of tax hike, including a gasoline tax. The state said they need $400 million dollars a year to catch up to the repairs that are out there. That’s above and beyond the last two voter-supported funded plans going toward the state’s highways.
“Nobody likes new taxes, but taxes are what makes your government work,” Straessle said. “We are just looking for a solution to repair the potholes. Some of our highways look like they've been shelled by artillery.”
But shell-shocked voters may still be skeptical, since Arkansas already pays more than 40 cents in taxes at the gas pump. Everyone on the state’s borders except Tennessee has cheaper gas tax burdens. Couple that with the current highway survey figures saying our neighbors have better roads.
Straessle disputed that, pointing out that those states get money from other sources like general funds or automotive sales taxes. Arkansas relies on just the gas tax, and he said that funding plan is tapped out.
“We simply just can't afford to take care of what we've got, especially with the funding model that we have,” he said.
Highway officials may get some help from Washington, with President Trump talking about billions in infrastructure programs.
On July 1, Tennessee joined a wave of states putting new taxes in place.
If Arkansas joins that wave, contractors like Estes might not be paving in gold, but may be at least paving roads we can be proud of.
“You know good roads cost money, but bad roads cost a lot more money,” Estes said.
So are our roads the worst in the nation? No, but they are pretty bad.