How Arkansas and Pennsylvania increased their highway funding

Updated Apr 21, 2015

 

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When events are beyond our control on a macro level, it becomes time to refocus and think both smaller in order to accomplish big things.

Such is the situation now with the Federal government and the maelstrom/quagmire of events surrounding efforts to fund infrastructure in the United States. Will the Highway Trust Fund issue be kicked down the road yet again, or will a permanent solution be realized sooner, rather than later?

With such an uncertain environment, it’s incumbent upon states to either put long-term road and bridge building plans aside and hope for the best, or take the bull by the horns and come up with their own solution for financing much needed infrastructure work and repairs.

And the latter is just what Arkansas and Pennsylvania have done in recent years.

At a presentation of state case studies for highway funding at the National Asphalt Pavement Association’s annual meeting in January, Craig Douglass, of Craig Douglass Communications, offered a look at the successful marketing campaign used in getting funding passed in Arkansas. Pennsylvania Asphalt Pavement Association (PAPA) Executive Director Gary Hoffman described that state’s efforts.

For these two states, the focus was on a unified strategy, from start to finish, in getting highway construction and maintenance legislation passed. Their respective strategies involved research and statistics that backed up their message and drove the point home to the states’ residents that funding their highways was a long-term investment that would benefit each individual, in addition to the states as a whole. This meant job creation and the overall economic well being, with improved transportation for commerce, and long-term savings in the cost of driving for residents.

They mostly diverted the dialogue away from making these efforts partisan in nature. The message was that improving road and bridge infrastructure was good for everyone and vital to the future of each state.

The Arkansas Example

Raising taxes is never a popular move for any purpose, let alone for one as important as infrastructure, but political leaders in Arkansas found a way to get a temporary tax on the ballot, and more importantly, get it voted in by the state’s voters.

In 2011 Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment, known as Issue No. 1, which created a temporary, 10-year 1/2-cent general sales tax dedicated to a statewide, bond-financed highway improvement program. While it was a slight tax increase, it was “consumption tax” and did not apply to groceries or medicine. The amendment was approved by 58.2 percent of the vote.

Also created was the reissuance of Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles (GARVEE) bonds to improve state interstates using a revenue stream that was already in place for that purpose, a similar bond program passed in 1999. In addition, one cent per gallon of the existing fuel tax was permanently dedicated to the State Aid City Street Program.

This was a culmination of efforts originally started in 2009 by the Arkansas General Assembly’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Highway Finance. This temporary standing committee operated between 2009 and 2010. The state’s legislature created the committee via Act 374 of 2009 to investigate ways to pay for maintaining and constructing highways in the state. To help the committee determine needs and promote the committees recommendations, industry members formed the Move Arkansas Forward campaign.

The committee took 18 months to create their recommendations. Move Arkansas Forward helped the committee conduct statewide focus groups to help the committee develop its considerations and recommendations.

Douglass, who served as the Move Arkansas Forward campaign coordinator, says the focus groups allowed the general public and some interest groups to comment on what was needed in their area.

“We didn’t make any proposals in the groups,” Douglass says. “We just listened and noted local qualitative concerns that could be addressed in the issue. We then tested through quantitative survey research some of the comments we thought could be salient in the context of a campaign. One such message was that in every focus group, people wanted to feel ‘more connected’ to one another. This ‘better connecting Arkansas’ idea tested well, and was used as one of the selling points in the campaign messaging.”

The gist: Move Arkansas Forward and the committee were making potential legislation to fund highway construction real for the people of the state. It had to be palatable to folks, and the campaign was working to give solid reasons why it was so important.

Doing this required there to be a “credibility of the process,” according to Douglass. It wasn’t just a committee creating recommendations that made sense to the committee itself; it was having a research-driven process.

“The ‘credibility of the process’ is also supported through the public rationale or ‘talking points’ which become the ‘reasons why’ the proposals should be supported,” says Douglass. “The same key points determining the recommendations, should be used as the key points on why voters (or legislators) should support the issue, meaning the messaging is credible, because of its consistency, throughout the process.”

An interesting strategy Douglass describes was an evolving support tactic. Initially, the Arkansas General Assembly referred to Issue No. 1 as a bi-partisan issue in that maintaining and building roads and highways was “an appropriate function of government.

“Then, we moved the issue from bi-partisan to non-partisan, meaning the issue was beyond political considerations,” Douglass says. “In this process we brought together Republicans and Democrats in support of Issue No. 1. Positioning the issue as bi-partisan and then non-partisan allowed both sides of the aisle to support the issue (without alienating their so-called base).”

Douglass says throughout the campaign, organizers touted the direct benefits to cities and counties, as well as overall economic development, with the creation of jobs being key.

“We specifically showed certain areas of the state, with definable voting blocks both in numbers and ideology, what was in it for them,” Douglass added. “We did this with a graphic map of the projects in their area that would be constructed if the issue passed. Then we closed the deal by stating all this could be done ‘without raising taxes on groceries, medicine, or gasoline’ — the clincher.”

The combination of the sales tax and reissuing of GARVEE funds is expected to supply roughly $1 billion in improvements to Arkansas interstates.

The Pennsylvania Example

While Arkansas focused on the economic impact of increased highway funding for repair and construction, Pennsylvania also highlighted safety and savings in transportation-related costs for the state’s residents.

Another big difference: Pennsylvania organizers needed to convince state legislators, and eventually the governor, rather than the voting public, as the proposal was going to become a law, rather than an amendment to the state constitution that required a public vote.

Legislators passed the bill, and in November 2013, Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law Act 89, which was originally estimated to generate $2.3 billion for transportation plans per year by fiscal year 2017-18. By the end of 2014, the plan had already created $2.6 billion in projects by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The estimate for 2015 now is at that same figure.

In Pennsylvania, laws are amendments to the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes (PCS), which is the official statutory codification created by the state’s general assembly. Act 89 amended Title 74 (transportation) and Title 75 (vehicles) of the PCS.

The law did a number of things to channel funds for transportation purposes. One significant development was removing a cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax (OCFT) over a five-year period, while also rolling into the OCFT the flat gas tax of 12 cent per gallon that had been charged at the pump. The last gas tax in the state passed in 1997 and the cap on the OCFT had been reached in the mid 1980s and had not been raised since that time.

The remaining funding sources are comprised of minimally increased user fees, such as a $5 registrations fee counties can enact on highway and bridge projects, and increases on surcharges for serious moving traffic violations.

The effort for the law began in April 2011, when Corbett created the Governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission (TFAC) to create highway work funding recommendations. The commission concluded in August that year and issued a report with their recommendations.

In September 2011, the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, a 400-member trade association for the state’s road and bridge construction industry, launched the Better Safer Roads campaign, with an accompanying website

BetterSaferRoads.com. The statewide radio and television campaign promoted the TFAC’s recommendations and directed Pennsylvania residents to sign an online petition on the website to support the funding plan. The APC’s Educational Trust Fund financed the campaign.

While it was legislators and the governor who would make the final decision on the law, organizers knew they had to target the citizens of the state to create a louder, unified voice to get all lawmakers and the governor on board. The television ads, and more specifically the radio spots, prompted the citizens of the state to go to BetterSaferRoads.com and sign the petition to let the governor know the people wanted the funding law. The ads stated that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were for it if the governor would get on board.

The campaign touted that new user fees, much like the fees applied to the state’s Marcellus Shale drillers, would provide the funding and that it would equate to less than the cost of an extra gallon of gas per week for the average driver.

“We did fairly unique marketing research,” says says APC Executive Vice President Robert Latham. “We shifted the message away from a ‘falling apart’ issue to ‘if we fund it, it’s safer for you and your community.” Latham managed the process for the Act 89 Advocacy.

“We put together a unique coalition of groups including AARP and other non-traditional supporters of transportation,” he adds. “It enjoyed very great public support.”

The Better Safer Roads campaign message, PAPA’s Hoffman told attendees of the NAPA meeting, was comprised of a few key points: safety for roads and bridges; convenience, reliability; savings in the cost of driving; and economic development, which, Hoffman described, appealed more to politically-minded individuals and legislators.

“We have the highest number of deficient bridges in the nation,” Hoffman said. Hoffman reported that in addition to road construction and repairs, the law is now going to fund work on 558 structurally deficient bridges in the state.