The members of the North Arkansas East/West Corridor Association are awaiting the results of a study of U.S. Highway 412 scheduled to be released early next year, NAEWCA managing director Gil Losurdo told the members of the Baxter County Quorum Court on Tuesday night.
The nonprofit group hopes to use the study’s findings to help get additional improvements to Highway 412 on Arkansas Department of Transportation’s State Infrastructure Transportation Plan, 10-year master plan of future road improvements.
The NAEWC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charted in April 2017 by area business leaders hoping to spur business development by expanding U.S. 412, which runs across the northern end of the state.
Arkansas’ section of U.S. 412, which runs from the Missouri state line near Paragould to Siloam Springs in northwest Arkansas, has 204 miles of highway, with 140 miles being two-lane roads. The highway has four or more lanes on its eastern and western ends, with additional four-lane sections running through Boone County; between Yellville and Mountain Home; between Ash Flat and Hardy and around Walnut Ridge.
“You look at Fulton County, Marion County and parts of Boone County, and those are pockets of underdeveloped areas,” Losurdo told the Quorum Court in a 20-minute update about the NAEWC’s activities. “Without that road, truckers tell me they are just not going there. Businesses say they’re not coming here because they cannot get their raw materials in and their finished products out, at least not on time.”
The new study on U.S. 412 is expected to be released in January or February 2020, Losurdo said. It will be the first comprehensive study on the highway since the mid-1980s.
In 1972, the highway was federally declared a “high priority corridor” for shipping and emergency evacuation purposes. The road was again designated as a “high priority corridor” by Congress in 1991 as part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.
Despite those designations, development of the highway has been lacking, limiting the opportunities for the road to develop into a major shipping artery.
“On the east and west of Mountain Home, you still have two-lane roads,” Losurdo said. “Our conversations with companies that want to move down here — trucking companies, particularly on the west end of the state — they will take their trucks and move them up to Joplin, Mo., across Missouri and then down (into Arkansas) when necessary just to avoid 412.”
One potential source of state funding for 412 improvements — an increase in the sales tax paid on motor fuel — has recently made headlines while another avenue — continuing the collection of the sales tax to help fund the Arkansas Department of Transportation — will appear on the ballot next year.
“I’m not here to advocate for or against taxes,” Losurdo told the Quorum Court. “Don’t’ get me wrong. I’m here to advocate for improving Highway 412.”
Legislation signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March went into effect Oct. 1, raising the state’s sales tax on unleaded gasoline by 3 cents to 24.5 cents a gallon and raising the tax on diesel fuel 6 cents to 28.5 cents per gallon.
The move is estimated to raise $95 million for highway funding and raises the state’s tax on motor fuels for the first time in 20 years.
An amendment converting a statewide half-cent general sales tax that supports the state’s Department of Transportation into a permanent sales tax will appear on the November 2020 election ballot. That sales tax was approved by voters in 2012, but is scheduled to expire in 2023.
To date, the half-cent sales tax has generated more than $1 billion in sales tax revenue, which has helped fund projects like the widening of Interstate 630 and Highway 70 from Little Rock to Hot Springs. Cities and counties also receive turn back funds from the sales tax’s collections, with Baxter County receiving almost $700,000 each year for road improvements.
“We are hoping that with the fuel sales tax and the half-cent sales tax, that there will be some funding to start improving 412,” Losurdo said. “We’ve been told that would be the case.”
Losurdo stressed to the Quorum Court that NAEWC members were not envisioning an interstate-level highway across the northern edge of the state.
“That’s not going to happen, at least in my lifetime,” he said. “But if we can get some of the two-lane (sections) upgraded with passing lanes and some places widened to four lanes with a middle (turning) lane, then we’re making a lot of progress. That’s what we’re advocating — improvement, not necessarily an interstate across the state.”
Visitors to the NAEWC website can sign up to receive the group’s newsletter, which contains information regarding the progress of Highway 412’s development.
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