Arkansas State Highway Commissioner Keith Gibson of Fort Smith said Issue 1 funds, if approved by voters, would give the state enough money to begin construction on I-49 between Alma and Chaffee Crossing.
Gibson said funds from the proposed 0.5% sales tax for Issue 1 would secure $270 million for a two-lane stretch of the interstate from Alma to Chaffee Crossing to be constructed over the next 10 years. If approved, the Arkansas State Highway Commission would vote on the project with hopes of securing federal funding as well. Gibson explained this is how interstate projects are commonly funded.
The proposed tax will be decided in the Nov. 3 general election and would permanently extend the current 0.5% state sales tax past its 2023 expiration date.
The $270 million that would be set aside for this route is only half of the $540 million needed to finish sections of I-49 from Alma to Chaffee Crossing and Greenwood to Y City, Gibson said. The commissioners visited a majority of the sites anticipating major construction and presented plans to constituents.
"(The project) would include buying all of the right-of-way, doing the engineering work, preparing the road for four lanes, but completing it for two lanes," Gibson said.
Issue 1 has met opposition from groups like Citizens Against Unfair Taxes.
Fort Smith Attorney Joey McCutchen, a member of the group, said there hasn’t been enough progress on I-49 since the current 0.5% sales tax went into effect in 2013.
McCutchen also said Gibson’s job is to sell the tax increase, even though Gibson’s hometown would likely benefit from the completion of the highway.
Gibson has been touted by Fort Smith officials as having a vested interest in transportation infrastructure in western Arkansas. He was a key player in the state’s partnership with the city to rehabilitate Towson Avenue and change the state highway to a municipal jurisdiction.
McCutchen said he would like to see a two-lane stretch of I-49 built with intent of bringing in federal revenue for expansion with the current 0.5% sales tax.
"We’re hearing all these grand plans for Fort Smith, which would be great for Sebastian County, but we can’t forget this would be a regressive sales tax," McCutchen said. "It’s on the backs of poor folks, it’s on the backs of families, it’s on the backs of our elderly. Who’s going to be using these highways? Who’s going to be damaging these highways?"
Instead of a statewide tax for all sales, McCutchen suggested a more specific sales tax, such as a diesel fuel tax, that would be more directly tied to road damage and commerce. He said officials need to find an alternative to ensure money the state has is being spent effectively and efficiently.
Federally, 3rd District U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting Wednesday that if reelected he would fight to bring back earmarks that the legislature repealed in 2010 to help fund the completion of the highway.
Womack is running in the Nov. 3 election against Libertarian Michael Kalagias and Democrat Celeste Williams.
McCutchen said he would support earmark money if officials could know exactly how money would be spent. McCutchen also spoke against a 10-year continuation of a 0.25% sales tax in Sebastian Co. supporting the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.