The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Support Delta transportation improvements & the DRA; Follow Gov. Beebe's lead

Posted on February 25, 2008 at 04:11 PM

Please urge all your Members of Congress and governors across the eight-state Delta region to support completion of the Interstate 69 Corridor and the entire Delta Development Highway System. Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas made superb statements at the annual National Governors’ Association conference in Washington, DC yesterday, in which he called for major improvements in America’s aging transportation system, and also commended the work of the Delta Regional Authority.

The Delta transportation system is burdened by aging bridges, the need for improved roads, and inadequate funding. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for new roads and repairs, is suffering severe funding problems. Gov. Beebe said the lack of money is a result of misplaced priorities. Why spend money abroad, he asked, when there are pressing needs at home?

The next year is a crucial time for all Delta regional advocates to join Gov. Beebe and other leaders as we weigh in on the need for transportation improvements in the Delta. The current transportation funding law, which pays for highways, bridges and mass-transit programs, expires in September 2009. The debate on the next bill is already getting started, and we need to have our voice heard from the beginning.

Last year the DRA unveiled the Delta Development Highway System (DDHS) plan, which calls for an estimated $18.5 billion to build 3,843 miles of new roads across the region. The DDHS is a superb example of strategic planning and exhaustive research. The DRA put together the plan after extensive consultations with the governors and state transportation departments of all eight states, the US Dept. of Transportation and other federal officials, transportation experts, and grassroots leaders throughout the region.

Congress and the national administration should be fair to all the regions and apply the same policy to the Delta as they applied to the Appalachian Regional Commission for many decades. Since 1965, when Congress authorized funding for new roads in that region, 2,700 miles of roads have been completed in Appalachia. There ought to be a similar dedicated funding stream for highway improvements in the Delta. All we ask for is a fair shake and the same treatment other regions received.

Please ask your Member of Congress to include dedicated funding language in the highway bill that directs money to projects in the region for completion of the Delta Development Highway System.

Gov. Beebe is a strong supporter of the DRA, and at our recent conference in Arkansas he joined Congressman Mike Ross (D-AR), Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), and many other Members of Congress across the region in calling for an increase in the DRA budget up to the original level of $30 million, up from the current amount of almost $12 million.

On Sunday the governors directed nearly $1.2 million Sunday toward economic development projects in Arkansas. Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi have the largest number of counties and parishes, Delta areas and populations in the DRA region and thus receive proportionally somewhat more funding. About two-thirds of the agency’s $12 million budget goes toward grants in the eight-state Delta region. All eight states receive some of the funding from the DRA.

Gov. Mike Beebe said the budget allocations show the authority’s importance in Arkansas. The governors have some discretion in how to spend their state’s grant money. Priorities are for regional economic development projects or pressing infrastructure needs, he said.

Gov. Beebe also hit the nail on the head in pointing out the funding discrepancy between the DRA and the other regional commissions in Appalachia and Alaska. The Appalachian budget this year is $73 million. That agency also has its own highway program, authorized at $470 million per year.

Just speaking as one person who has been involved in Delta regional issues for over 20 years, I thought Gov. Beebe’s comments were among the best, if not the best, I have ever heard any governor make about the Delta.

Gov. Beebe was absolutely correct in pointing out the importance of making sure that rural areas are not left out in the cold in transportation funding. The US Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters, spoke at the conference and suggested replacing the current system of road planning and funding with a privately funded system of new toll roads. Unfortunately, we feel that this would be a serious mistake.

Gov. Beebe predicted that the largely rural states would not generate enough traffic to justify private investment for toll roads, and he is right on target.

For many years we have heard people from urban areas claim that “transportation funding dollars should follow the cars.” This strategy will forever leave impoverished rural areas out in the cold, as regions like the Delta will get poorer, and the rich areas will get richer. The Delta has great potential for developing new markets and new investments, but it can’t happen without a decent transportation network.

Focusing all the funding dollars on areas with heavy traffic now will also compound the problem of congestion and air pollution in those areas, making the “dollars should follow cars” argument counterproductive for both urban and rural areas.

The Delta Grassroots Caucus is advocating heavily for the development of new investments and new markets in the Delta, and it is essential for the economic development of the region that we have a strong transportation system.

Gov. Beebe questioned why the United States was spending money to build roads in foreign countries instead of funneling more money to domestic highway projects. “Does the administration have any plans to increase the size of the pie?” he asked Peters.

US Secretary of Transportation Peters responded that overseas infrastructure investments, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, had played a significant role in keeping the United States safe from terrorist attacks.

She said it has been difficult to secure more federal money for nondefense, domestic programs, and “we’re going to see that continue in the future. We need to diversify our funding sources.”

Everybody wants to keep America safe, but we would ask if part of the strategy for keeping America safe should be in keeping us strong at home. We should not use international turmoil as a justification for not investing in seriously needed infrastructure in a region of eight states, 240 counties and more than nine million people in the heartland of America.

Gov. Beebe also addressed the issue of the administrative expenses of the DRA. About $1.5 million, or 13 percent of the authority’s budget, will be directed toward administrative costs. As a realistic matter, this is a reasonable percentage when the budget is only $12 million. Beebe said he thought the administrative costs were appropriate. “You’d like to be in the 10 to 15 percent range, that’s good,” Beebe said.