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Arkansas highway officials explore toll on I-40

The Associated Press

5/23/2013

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A consultant retained by Arkansas highway officials to assess the feasibility of making all or parts of Interstate 40 between North Little Rock and West Memphis a tollway to pay to widen the highway is surveying motorists on why they use the route and their willingness to pay a toll.

The survey, which can be found at www.ark40.com, will be available for two weeks for people who travel the highway, state Highway and Transportation Department officials said Wednesday.

Electronic message boards have been stationed along I-40 to spread the word about the survey, including two stationed near the Galloway exit in North Little Rock. Additionally, fliers will be distributed at truck stops and rest stops along the route.

The Arkansas Highway Commission authorized the study in March 2012 as part of a due diligence to study the feasibility of all sources of funding.

In 2011, voters in the state approved renewal of the existing $575 million bond program to pay for repairs on nearly 300 miles of interstates. In November, they approved a temporary half-percent sales tax that would be in place for 10 years and finance a $1.3 billion bond program targeting construction of four-lane highways or adding capacity to existing four-lane highways.

Neither one of those proposals, state highway officials have noted, add capacity to I-40.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports (http://is.gd/JsFix0) current federal law allows states to add lanes to existing interstates and charge tolls for the new lanes only, said Alan Meadors, who heads the department's planning and research division. But the study also will look at adding a lane in each direction and tolling all lanes in the event federal law changes, he said.

The 130-mile section of I-40 between North Little Rock and West Memphis is particularly vexing because of the high concentration of big trucks. Truck traffic exceeds 50 percent of the total traffic in several sections, a volume that is "almost unheard of on two-lane interstates," said Jessie Jones, who is a department engineer and second in command of the agency's planning and research division.

The average daily vehicle count ranges between 30,000 and nearly 40,000, Jones said.

"I don't consider it a very pleasant drive through there," Meadors said.

Jacobs Engineering, an international consulting firm with an office in Little Rock, is conducting the survey and the study under a $728,000 contract with the department. The federal government is picking up 80 percent of the cost.

The study, which is expected to be completed later this year, will look at all aspects of tolling, including whether tolling just one lane will be feasible, how the tolling would work and the toll amount that would attract the most toll users and limit the number of motorists who would use other routes, Jones said.

"We're going to have a complete matrix of strategies," she said.

The study also will have cost estimates for different scenarios and how long it would take for tolls to pay off the cost of widening.

"Jacobs has a tough assignment," Meadors said.

In the survey, Jacobs particularly wants to know why people use the route on a particular trip; what day the trip was taken; the primary purpose of the trip; how often the trip is taken; the type of vehicle used; total travel distance; and total travel time. The survey also asks a series of questions focusing on how much the survey participant would pay to save 60 minutes, 45 minutes, 30 minutes or 15 minutes on a trip.

"If you are a business, you would be more likely to pay a toll because time is money in that instance," Meadors said.

A business trip also is "not a discretionary trip," Jones added.

The survey wants to include truckers and their preferences even though trucking groups generally oppose tolling existing interstates and highways.

The survey asks 20 questions and takes about four minutes to complete. People who take the survey are identified only by age and income ranges and ZIP code. But people who take the survey and want to be eligible to win one of three $100 American Express gift cards will have to provide an e-mail address.

Information from: NOEL OMAN, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

 

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JB Hunt