During a public meeting Monday, the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce hosted Arkansas Department of Transportation Director Lori Tudor, whom spoke about Issue 1 on the November ballot and local Saline County projects.
Brent Jones, chair of the Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced Tudor and gave some of her history.
Tudor has been with ARDOT since 1981, though she took a few years off to get her engineering degree. She became director in March of this year. Her career has been mostly with ARDOT's planning branch.
She is a member of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which awarded her the Alfred E. Johnson Achievement Award that recognizes a department of transportation official who has made outstanding contributions and provided exceptional service in engineering or management.
She is the first woman to be inducted into the University of Arkansas Academy of Civil Engineering. She is also a registered professional engineer.
Tudor is a Saline County resident, having graduated from Benton High School and was also a proud Eastside Cougar.
She began by discussing Issue 1.
"Issue 1 simply asks voters to decide whether or not to continue the collection of a half-cent sales tax that has been in place since 2012 and is dedicated solely for improvements and maintenance of our state highways, county roads and city streets," Tudor said.
She explained for the past few decades ARDOT has not had adequate funding to keep up with demand for upkeep and to meet the public's expectation.
Currently, ARDOT is funded primarily through a flat tax on fuel. She said in recent years, the goal has been to reduce fuel consumption by making vehicles more fuel efficient.
This has meant there are more cars on the road, but ARDOT's revenue has been flat. The cost of construction and maintenance has risen.
Tudor said that in 1998, ARDOT could overlay 200 lane miles with $10 million. In 2018, that amount went to only 90 miles at the same price.
To help address this funding shortfall, in 2012 a temporary half-cent sales tax was passed. Of those funds, 70 percent goes to ARDOT and 30 percent goes to cities and counties for their own road work and construction.
That tax is set to expire in June 2023.
"We are well on our way to fulfilling the promises we made to voters in 2012," Tudor said.
All the promised Connecting Arkansas projects will either be begun or finished by the end of 2021.
This proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution is part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's long-term highway plan.
"This revenue can only be used to improve and maintain roads," Tudor said.
If Issue 1 is passed, ARDOT has a 10-year Renew Arkansas Highways Program totaling $7.4 billion that includes pavement preservation, bridge improvements and preservation, interstate maintenance, capital and congestion relief and safety improvements.
In Saline County alone, there are plans for 18 projects spanning 145 miles for a total cost of $167 million.
If the issue fails, cities and counties will lose 30 percent of their road budgets each year, Tudor said.
Saline County would lose $1.1 million each year.
Instead of maintaining and improving the road network, Tudor said ARDOT would just be managing the decline of the system. As construction costs go up, ARDOT will not be able to keep up with its needs. ARDOT may even have to close some roads and bridges to preserve them.
Tudor said this tax costs the average family $8 each month. Passing the issue will neither increase or decrease the cost.
She emphasized it is not a new tax.
"It is an extension of an existing tax," Tudor said.
She talked about the benefits of extending the tax, including that good roads are safe roads.
She said when an industry looks for somewhere to locate, they look at the roads to help determine if they want to be there so good roads bring in jobs.
She added with good roads, vehicles have less wear and tear, saving families money.
"Arkansans are about to make one of the most important decision they have ever made about Arkansas roads," Tudor said.
The full presentation is available at www.ardot.gov/renew.
She talked about ARDOT's projects in Saline County as well.
The Interstate 30 widening from Arkansas 70 to Sevier Street is a Connecting Arkansas project that is costing $187 million. It went to contract in 2018 and expected to be finished in late 2022. It will be six lanes with five bridges repaired and three interchanges fixed.
There are various projects from Arkansas 5 in Benton to Hot Springs Village, including resurfacing the road and a safety project realigning 10 curves and correcting the elevation of 10 more.
From Arkansas 5 in Benton to Little Rock is being widened in stages. Part of it is already funded and part of it will require funds from this tax.
ARDOT is also looking at reconfiguring a ramp between Exits 117 and 118 to make access to the area around Tinseltown and the Benton Event Center easier.
Jones let the audience know the Chamber does support Issue 1.