Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

TOP STORY>> Housing will force freeway to switch

IN SHORT>> New developments force the State Highway Department to reassess which way the second phase of the North Belt should go.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

For the undecided portion of the North Belt Freeway through the Sherwood area, the State Highway and Transportation Department is considering not only the four routes studied last time, but also undefined routes running as far north as Gravel Ridge, commissioner Carl Rosenbaum said Tuesday night.

At the annual reception and dinner sponsored by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, Rosenbaum also reported that it would now cost $40 million instead of the $10 million allocated to widen Hwy. 67/167 to six lanes from the North Belt interchange to Red-mond Road.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has determined that the current 167-ft. bridge over Bayou Meto must be replaced by a 1,200-ft. bridge because it will be built in a wetlands and flood plain. The longer bridge would cost an estimated $16 million alone.

Highway Department Engineer Frank Vozzel said there was no appeal of the Corps decision.

NORTH BELT REVISITED

In late 2003, Sherwood rejected the Highway Department’s choice of alternatives to link the North Belt from Hwy. 67/167 to a spot near the North Little Rock Municipal Airport en route to Crystal Hill and I-430.

The Highway Department’s preferred route would have run through several developed or developing subdivisions on or near the east-west portion of Hwy. 107, and the city of Sherwood turned thumbs down by refusing to incorporate that route into its master plan. That’s when the de-partment went back to the drawing board, launching an in-house, supplemental environmental impact statement to determine the route the North Belt Freeway will take through the Sherwood area.

Department spokesman Randy Ort said the area from Hwy. 107 to north of Gravel Ridge is essentially the same area from which the department started its previous study.

While the new supplemental EIS must consider all the old routes as well as some new ones, one insider said the old highway department favorite, now even more populated, is a bad bet.

A department press release, announcing public involvement sessions in the Sherwood area said, “The meetings will present previously evaluated alignments in the Sherwood and North Little Rock vicinity along with new alignments in the vicinity of Jacksonville, Gravel Ridge and Runyan Acres.”

MEETINGS SLATED

The announced meetings will be 4-7 p.m. on Nov. 14, at the Brockington Road Church of the Nazarene, 9860 Brockington Road and also from 4-7 p.m. Nov. 15 at Cato Elementary School, 9906 Jacksonville-Cato Road.

Completion of the North Belt loop is expected to cost about $200 million. If a route in the Gravel Ridge area — north of Sherwood — is chosen, it could cost Sherwood sales tax revenues.

“The further north they go, we’ll annex that far north,” Sherwood Mayor Bill Harmon said Monday.

Rosenbaum, who represents central Arkansas on the Highway Commission, has been skeptical in the past about the chances of getting the North Belt completed in the foreseeable future, but Tuesday he said chances were “looking better.”
“People are interested in getting it built,” he said. “I hope by next year to have a record of decision,” confirming the North Belt route through the Sherwood area.

Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim thanked the commission for the recently completed projects — including increasing the southbound lanes north of Vandenberg, and reminding them of long and short-term projects the city hopes for. Those include redesigning the James Street overpass and making Jacksonville’s Hwy. 67/167 frontage roads one-way.
Highway Department Director Dan Flowers encouraged those attending the dinner to help promote the Dec. 13 authority to extend existing diesel tax to continue to pay for work on the state’s interstate system.

In 1999, 63 percent of our interstate system was rated poor, he said. With the infusion of money, today 72 percent of the same system is now rated good, but without continued maintenance, it would fall back into disrepair.