Highway 65 Project in Boone County Affected by Court Ruling

From: KTLO

A project in North Central Arkansas is among five the Arkansas Department of Transportation has identified to be used to reimburse its Amendment 91 account a total of over $121 million the state Supreme Court says the agency illegally spent on two other projects.

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chip Welch has given the department 60 days to reimburse the account.

The department already has reimbursed the account over $62 million, according to documents submitted in a case before Welch.

The list of five identified projects includes widening a section of U.S. 65 in Boone County.

At issue was over $183 million for projects to improve the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, also called 30 Crossing, and to widen a section of Interstate 630 in west Little Rock.

Voters approved Amendment 91 to the Arkansas Constitution in 2012 to help pay for the department’s $1.8 billion Connecting Arkansas Program, which focused on improving about 200 miles of state highways in regionally significant corridors.

The program was financed by a half-percent statewide sales tax that Arkansas began collecting in 2013. It is scheduled to expire in 2023.

In November 2018, Shelly Buonaiuto of Fayetteville led a group of Arkansas residents who sued the department, its director and the Arkansas Highway Commission, contending a “plain reading” of Amendment 91 clearly limited spending on projects no wider than four lanes.

The I-30 project and the I-630 project were six-lane thoroughfares being widened to 10 and eight lanes, respectively.

The 30 Crossing project is an extensive effort to improve the I-30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, including replacing the bridge over the Arkansas River. Work on the first phase began in September. Both phases are estimated to cost a collective $1 billion.

The widening of a 2.2-mile section of I-630 in west Little Rock was completed at a cost of $87.4 million.

Welch agreed with the department in a 2019 decision that repeated references to four-lane roads in the amendment were shorthand for the agency’s so-called four-lane grid system of high-priority roads, which included six-lane roads.

But the state Supreme Court disagreed. Its 6-1 decision said that because of the wording in Amendment 91, all of the money for the projects in question will have to come from sources other than the sales tax.

The department also will move some funds from various projects within its Interstate Rehabilitation Program.

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