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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Highway Department ready to shaft consumers with toll roads

Posted By on Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 7:03 AM

click to enlarge ROAD RAGE: Trucks pound the highways to rubble. Other motorists pay for repairs.
  • ROAD RAGE: Trucks pound the highways to rubble. Other motorists pay for repairs.
The Arkansas Highway Department received a study yesterday that said Arkansas could pay for an additional lane on I-40 between North Little Rock and Memphis with toll roads, if federal law allowed.

Believe it: If Republicans hold sway in Congress, toll roads will be coming on interstates. And they will punish average motorists to benefit truckers.

Toll roads seems to make so much sense. Let the users pay. (And avoid a common-sense reliance on increases in the fuel tax, which encourages more fuel-efficient cars and living patterns.) But who really pays?

Study after study has shown that regular passenger vehicles cause, comparatively, almost no damage to interstate highways. But the big rigs that use Arkansas as a bridge state crumble the roads at a fearsome rates. Truckers don't like tolls, but they really hate tonnage charges and other fees that truly recoup the damage they do to roads. Think: How often have we had to rebuild Interstate 630 through Little Rock, which carries a heavy commuter load but virtually no trucks? Never is the answer, compared with the perpetual rebuilding of I-40 and I-30, destroyed as soon as rebuilt by steady rig traffic.

We once had a highway leader who understood this and advocated the interests of the people who live in Arkansas and depend on the roads daily, not for a crossing en route from North Carolina to California with a load of pig iron. Henry Gray was the highway director's name. He fought the truckers, rather than fighting to stick poor Arkies. Current highway leaders are more agreeable. They volunteer that truckers might pay for tolls until additional lanes were added. And then return to the existing system of placing the disproportionate burden of repair on car drivers who don't cause the damage.

Speaking of pig iron: Steel fabrication millionaire Tom Schueck, regrettably, is a member of the state Highway Commission. I noted he was quoted with his usual sensitivity in the Democrat-Gazette article on the toll road boondoggle:

If I-40 was a toll road, motorists could zip from North Little Rock to Memphis for 9 cents a mile, or $9.90 for a 110-mile one-way trip. That is the lowest toll rate that the study found that would accommodate most of the traffic and realize the largest amount of revenue.

"I would pay that in a heartbeat," said commission member Tom Schueck of Little Rock.

Easy for him to say. Not so easy for the Arkansas worker who might have to commute on I-40 to a  $6.25-an-hour job. Twice a day. Five days a week.

PS — The  most unsettling remark at yesterdays meeting was Commission Chairman Ed Regenold's comment that tolls could produce excess revenue to build other highways.  I'd have to see some better numbers than so far produced to believe that.

PPS — A bigger concern truly was the dwindling highway trust fund. What do Arkansas Republicans in Congress intend to do about it? In the case of Tom Cotton, nothing. Oh, he'd like to rob sensible mass transit money from big cities to pay for infrastructure out in Arkansas's piney woods, but otherwise, nothing useful. Toll roads, maybe

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