Leader Blues

Saturday, September 02, 2006

TOP STORY >>North Belt could get approval next spring

IN SHORT: The Highway Department could pick a new route for a freeway through Sherwood by next year, but funding is still questionable.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

If all goes according to plan—and that’s a big “if” when talking about Sherwood’s missing link of the North Belt Freeway—public hearings on a new proposed route will be held this fall, the route selected by Jan. 1 and the Federal Highway Administration will issue its record of decision in the spring.

That’s what Frank Vozel, chief engineer for the state Highway Department, told the Metroplan Board of Directors Wednesday.

In 2003, angry homeowners, the city of Sherwood and Metroplan forced the Highway Department to abandon its preferred route, which ran parallel to the east-west section of Hwy. 107 between Kellogg and Brockington roads, and would have run through backyards and homes in the Hidden Creek, Amber Oaks and Winridge subdivisions as well as the toney new Miller’s Crossing subdivision, where developers have since built more than 50 homes.

At its July 2005 meeting, Sherwood City Council unanmously agreed it could approve construction of the North Belt link anywhere north of the route the department selected last time around.

NOT VIABLE
While technically all previous proposed routes are being considered in the supplemental assessment, sources close to the project privately say the previous choice is no longer viable.

The draft supplemental assessment is nearing completion, according to Highway Department spokesman Glenn Bolick.
Then it will be filed and the public given 30-days notice for comment and the public hearing will be held, Bolick said Thursday.

After the FHA’s record of decision, engineering will begin. Once funding is designated, the project will be let for bids, he said.

That approximately three-to-five-mile stretch of highway (depending on the route selected) had been estimated to cost as much as $36 million and the entire unbuilt 13-mile stretch between Hwy. 67-167 to I-430 was estimated at $218 million in 2003.

The Highway Department estimates construction inflation at about six percent per year, so that could now be $250 million or more.

TOLL ROAD?
Currently, no money is allocated for completion of the North Belt, Bolick said.

Some highway department commissioners, including Carl Rosenbaum, central Arkansas’ representative, favor making the North Belt a toll road.

The North Belt and Bella Vista bypass are the two major new projects most recently considered by the Highway Department, Bolick said, and Bella Vista will be a toll road — the first in the state.

The first half of the North Belt, connecting I-40 and state Highway 67-167, opened in January 2003.

Except for the section through Sherwood, the route is set for the rest of the North Belt, which would connect Hwy. 67-167 to I-430 near Crystal Hill.

To continue the bypass, I-430 heads south to I-30. The concept of a North Belt Loop to accommodate through traffic and alleviate local traffic, particularly on I-40, was first discussed more than 50 years ago.

The first environmental impact statement, completed in 1994, selected a route unacceptable to Sherwood and in 1997, that EIS expired without action.

In 2001, the state Highway and Transportation Department began a new environmental assessment — less comprehensive and rigorous than an environmental impact statement.

In 2003, the department again selected essentially the same route found unacceptable in 1997. In 2004, the current environmental assessment was begun again.