Arkansas Highway Officials Grilled About Road Conditions In Last Week’s Winter Storm

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(Little Rock, AR) Arkansas Highway officials were doing some explaining over what happened last week that brought interstate traffic to a stand-still.

Motorists were stuck on iced over roads for hours and even days during the ice storm.

Now lawmakers are asking what happened and why the roads weren't ready.

"Why did everybody in Eastern Arkansas know how bad the interstate between Forest City and Memphis was gonna get but apparently the Highway Department didn't know?" asked one Arkansas legislator at Tuesday's highway hearing.

The hearing before Arkansas lawmakers was to address the mess on Arkansas interstates that left drivers going nowhere for hours and days as roads became iced-over messes in last week's ice storm.

"We do know we do need better communication from the boots on the ground all the way to our district. We do think we need to be more aggressive in moving equipment and personnel," said Arkansas' Highway Director Scott Bennett.

Arkansas State Police said a combination of wrecks, stalled vehicles, and other problems slowed their response.

"The downed power lines that was down for two hours, that was our biggest down time and I-40 is one of the most heavily traveled interstates in the country and when you shut the interstate down for two hours, it does not take long," said Colonel Stan Witt with the Arkansas State Police.

What resulted was traffic backed up for miles, impassable roads, and even the National Guard being called on to help stranded motorists.

Highway officials say there are lessons learned from the storm no one expected, including moving people and equipment sooner, having salt in regional locations to get out sooner, and having more people in place.

They say, overall, they think their workers did the best they could with what they had at the time.

"It's going to take money and we have finite budget. We have a limited budget that is flat. We have to consider moving more money to maintenance, which will affect the amount of construction we are able to do or we have to come to the legislature and ask for more money," said Bennett.

Lawmakers say they too have a role to play in planning ahead for road improvements and alleviating road congestion, and that takes money.

"This legislature in Arkansas at some point is going to have to address it. Maybe some one time money in the GIF, General Improvement Fund, or through the surplus," said Arkansas Representative Jonathan Barnett, who heads up the Transportation Committee for the House of Representatives.

Lawmakers say now that the hearing is over, one thing is clear - funding for the Highway Department will likely be a top issue at the upcoming legislative session.