The highway commission was established by a constitutional amendment nearly 50 years ago. The purpose was to take the politics out of highway road building decisions. But Lane Kidd, president of the trucking association, says the opposite has occurred.
"We've created this kind of feudal system of five highway commissioners that act more like political barons than anything else," he say, "and, in fact, politics are the rule of the day in how our highway dollars are spent. They are so powerful, even legislators shy away from opposing them."
Kidd says Arkansas is one of only two states with an independent, autonomous highway agency that does not answer to the state Legislature or to the governor.
The issue came to a head last year when the commission said it planned to put tolls on existing interstate highways under a new federal pilot program, despite the opposition of the governor. The commission finally dropped the plan in late March after the state Legislature passed a highway package of fuel tax increases and a bond issue.
However, if the bond issue should fail, there's nothing keeping the highway commission from going ahead with its toll plan. The initial deadline to apply was March 31, but after getting no takers, the Federal Highway Administration now says it will accept a proposal whenever it is submitted.
"No state agency should be empowered to levy taxes on its own, without the approval of the Legislature or the governor," Kidd says. "We'd like to make sure they don't have that choice."
The association's board of directors has asked Kidd to conduct a 90-day feasibility study of whether it should proceed in attempting to get the highway commission amendment repealed in the November 2000 election. Kidd says if they can get it on the ballot, he believes the public would overturn the commission amendment. Two public opinion surveys conducted by a New York polling firm for the trucking association found that given the choice, 80% of registered voters polled would dismantle the state highway commission and bring highway decisions back under the control of the state government.
Highway Commission Chairman Herby Branscum Jr. scoffed at the plan. "Let the truckers decide who ought to run the highways?" he told Donrey Media Group. "Now that's really a scheme, isn't it?"