There’s something about the “open road” that appeals to us as Americans. I think about the nostalgic, former U.S. highway Route 66, which served as a major path for people migrating west during the 1930s Dust Bowl.
In Arkansas’ First District alone, we have two stretches of road listed on the National Scenic Byway list, including “The Great River Road” spanning the Mississippi River border and “Crowley’s Ridge Parkway” running from Helena-West Helena to St. Francis.
These stretches of pavement represent more than a means to get from Point A to B. They’re commerce, school routes, and pleasure drives. They’re shopping trips, family vacations, and a way home. They’re a way of life.
In 1956, Washington established the Highway Trust Fund to finance more road construction across our nation, including the Interstate Highway System. This fund has seen some great accomplishments through the years but has run into solvency issues since 2008. In fact, expenditures exceeding revenue has become so big a problem, the fund will encounter a budget shortfall by the end of August, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
As a member of the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, I feel an obligation to make sure Congress finds a way to finance our country’s important highway projects without amassing more debt or raising taxes.
Right now, a general budget transfer to prop the trust fund doesn’t seem likely. I do, however, anticipate Congress will pass a short-term extension while it works on a long-term bill, much like it did with the Farm Bill.
So, here’s the big question: How do we fix it for good?
First, I don’t believe Congress should raise the federal gasoline tax, which stands at 18.4 cents per gallon. Our economy is still too fragile to raise taxes, and we’ve seen a broad bipartisan agreement on this issue. Meanwhile, over in the trucking industry, some leaders have expressed support to increase the 24.4 cents-per-gallon federal diesel tax, while others seem in opposition. This group, as the largest user of our nation’s highways, will play a key role in deciding if and how much additional tax revenue we’ll see. Lastly, the T&I and Ways and Means Committees are engaging all stakeholders to lay out our funding challenges. Ultimately, the end users will decide how much they value good roads.
Back home, one highway project in particular has been a long time coming. For years, we’ve heard about the “future” Interstate-555 connecting Northeast Arkansas to Memphis. With this unfinished connection looming so closely on the horizon, one of my big highway goals through the T&I Committee is to see this project completed quickly for Arkansas’ First District; much like our friends in Northwest Arkansas recently had an interstate designation change from I-540 to I-49. I believe that we too, here in Northeast Arkansas, will see our designation change from Future I-555 to I-555 soon.
Maybe then, we can talk about our experiences back on the “open road.”