LITTLE ROCK – Last year the legislature voted to conduct an extensive review of the operations of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, to identify areas where improvements could be made.
Act 298 of 2019 mandates that the Legislative Council hire an independent consultant to perform the review. The consultant is Guidehouse, of McLean, Virginia. It will focus on the bidding procedures, purchasing methods and overall finances of one of the largest agencies in state government. It will recommend legislation for the General Assembly to consider during the 2021 regular session.
One purpose is to ensure responsiveness to the needs of citizens. In other words, if members of a community are concerned about the number of accidents on a particular stretch of highway, such as a sharp curve with a low shoulder, their concerns should not be ignored.
In September, Guidehouse submitted to the Department a lengthy and detailed list of requests for data. Since then, Guidehouse has also been talking to key staff at the Transportation Department.
Staff spent 3,220 hours working with Guidehouse to provide the requested data. As of December, the consultant had uploaded more than 1,150 files. The consultants made a progress report to legislators.
The Transportation Department has 3,724 full time employees working across the state, with an annual budget of $425.4 million, according to the Guidehouse report.
Legislators also received a detailed report from the Transportation Department itself, on the progress of 34 projects that were under construction at the beginning of the year. Each project will cost more than $10 million to complete.
The largest project, in terms of cost, is a $187 million widening of Interstate 30 in western Saline County, where Highway 70 turns off toward Hot Springs. The interstate is being widened from four to six lanes for 5.9 miles. It is scheduled for completion in late 2022.
The second largest project is in Prairie County, along Interstate 40. It is a $100 million project to replace the bridge over the White River.
The estimated completion date is the middle of 2020, but delays may result because of disputes between the Department and building contractors. High water and heavy rains interfered with construction schedules. Contractors and the Department do not agree on who should foot the cost of those delays.
The director of the Department, Scott Bennett, announced that he intended to step down on March 20. He worked at the Department for 32 years and has been its director since 2011.
At a recent meeting of the Highway Commission, he outlined the projects that the Department has worked on during the past ten years. They amount to 1,100 projects covering 5,600 miles of highway and costing $7.2 billion.
Last year the legislature approved two highway-funding measures. One measure, Act 416, will generate an estimated $95 million annually.
The other measure is a resolution that refers to voters a proposed constitutional amendment. If it passes in the November general election, it will provide an additional $205 million a year to the Department by permanently extending the current half-cent sales tax dedicated to highways and bridges.