Overdrive Extra

Kevin Jones

I-40 lanes back open in Arkansas

| July 04, 2013
Just another day stuck on I-40 between Little Rock and Memphis. No traffic was moving in either direction when this photo was taken in March. | Photo by Kevin Jones

Just another day stuck on I-40 between Little Rock and Memphis. No traffic was moving in either direction when this photo was taken in March. | Photo by Kevin Jones

Just in time for the 4th of July, the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department says all four lanes of I-40 will be open between Little Rock and Memphis, or at least that the 18-month reconstruction project is “now substantially complete.”

For a year-and-a-half Arkansas has held trucking hostage by limiting one of the busiest freight corridors in the U.S. to one lane in each direction. And that was on a good day.

Often east-west traffic has been brought to a standstill on one side or the other, and sometimes both. And you’d never know when a construction crew might dawdle, or when a 4-wheeler pulling a camper would lose an axle. It doesn’t take much to block a single lane. A two-hour transit could easily become four hours.

Of course, as I-40 regulars know, even with all four narrow lanes flowing across the rice and soybean fields, accidents are common, sometimes deadly and routinely the source of massive delays.

And that’s no way to run an interstate highway. Especially not a major artery, projected to be a leading freight route for the next 20 years.

Arkansas is a poor state and one that relies on federal support. Fair enough, since much of the traffic on I-40 neither begins nor ends in the state.

Yet some politicians, in a time when it’s popular to deride the federal government, would just as soon let a neighbor rot, or so former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas told me at a recent freight conference (go to the 33:20 mark of the video).

Her remarks were made in Texas, where invoking Lone Star nationalism is like serving brisket: it’s expected fare at public occasions. And she didn’t actually say she didn’t care about her state’s less affluent neighbors, but she did say it’s time to “let every state opt out of the Highway Trust Fund” and decide for themselves how to fund transportation infrastructure.

No offense, Texas (I’m a citizen, by birth), but your independence doesn’t mean much if goods can’t get in and out of the state. What are you going to do: Invade Arkansas and fix the roads.

Bad idea.

The Founding Fathers recognized that the federal government must ensure an open interstate transportation system, and that means fixing bottlenecks (whether intentional or not).

I’m reminded of one of those endless college dorm discussions: Which is more important, your freedom or your health? Well, one doesn’t mean much without the other.

Interstate truckers need a good federal highway system. The price we pay is regulation. Want the feds out of your business? Get used to sitting around in local traffic. And local governments are just as likely to regulate and tax trucks as they pass through.

So, even though I suspect many in the trucking industry would advise new Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to introduce some common sense to DOT regs, I’d encourage him to develop a sustainable model for highway funding — given its historical priority as the key enabler American commerce.

 

Take the Overdrive poll regarding DOT priorities.

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