Arkansans prefer well-maintained highways over new roads, according to a poll on state transportation funding.

DALLAS -- Arkansans would rather maintain existing roads than build new ones and favor extending a temporary sales tax to fund the work instead of raising the state gasoline tax, according to a six-month study of long-term transportation funding in the state.

A majority of the 800 likely voters surveyed in a mid-December poll oppose any increase in the state's current gasoline and diesel taxes but narrowly support a wholesale tax on fuel distributors, the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation said in the report delivered to the Arkansas Highway Commission on Jan. 4.

Voters want a say in whether the state should raise taxes for transportation, said Craig Douglass, executive director of the Good Roads Foundation.

A 6.5% excise tax on motor fuels would generate $312 million in 2024, the foundation said.

The new tax would bring in $231 million in fiscal 2019, $245 million in 2020, and $261 million in 2021 if it were put into place at once, Douglass said. Phasing in the tax over three years would result in collections of $71 million in 2019 and $151 million in 2020, he said. Collections in 2024 are expected to total $312 million.

Voters would have to approve a Constitutional amendment in the statewide election in November to make permanent the 10-year sales tax they voted for in 2012 and to levy a wholesale excise tax on motor fuels at the distributor level, Douglass said.

The voters may be asked to approve a bond issue to provide funding for highway needs until the sales tax becomes permanent in 2024, he said.

"The voters want the ball. They want to decide," Douglass told the highway commissioners. "In other words, they don't necessarily want the legislature to do it. They want the legislature to refer the question back to them, just as was done with the half-cent sales tax."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked the foundation and other transportation groups last year to look into how the state should fund transportation projects in the future.

Legislators approved a $50 million transfer to the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department from a state surplus in fiscal 2016 at a special session in May as the required state match for $200 million of federal highway funding.

Hutchinson said then that the transfer would give lawmakers time to develop a long-term revenue source in the 2017 General Assembly session, which convenes on Jan. 9. Without a sustainable funding source, he said, the state would have to come up with at least $50 million each year to keep the federal dollars coming in.

Hutchinson was noncommittal about the roads report following its release.

"That's part of the ongoing process and discussions," the governor said at a news conference. "There's not been a consensus developed yet. We will continue to look at that in the report, which is part of that process."

Hutchinson provided $50,000 from state discretionary funds for the foundation's study, with private sources donating another $60,000.

The combination of a permanent sales tax and a new wholesale tax on motor fuels would solve the matching funds issue, Douglass said.

"Part of this long-term funding program would address the immediate needs of matching federal funds and then continuing to match federal funds as they become available over the next number of years," he said.

The 0.5% sales tax would bring in $206 million in 2024 if it were made permanent, Douglass said.

Voters approved the temporary sales tax in 2012 to help finance a $1.8 billion, 10-year road construction program to build four-lane highways between major cities in the state. It currently generates $161 million per year for the state highway department and $70 million for city and county roads.

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