Leader Blues

Monday, January 22, 2007

TOP STORY >>Funding seen for streets in Cabot

Leader staff writer

To begin addressing Cabot’s traffic problems, Mayor Eddie Joe Williams has asked traffic experts to come up with four or five projects that would help the most, cost the least and be completed the fastest. To pay for the work, Williams proposes using $2 million in bond money for streets that voters approved in Sept. 2005 as part of a $30 million bond issue funded by extending a 1-cent sales tax. But with smart planning, he thinks he can turn $2 million into $10 million with federal matching funds. Initially, the plan for about $250,000 of the city’s $2 million in street money was to extend Elm Street, which is now only a right-of-way. Proponents said it would keep traffic off Highway 89, making it possible to drive from 10th Street to Fred’s on Second Street without getting into heavy traffic.

The city had already declared eminent domain and taken the right-of- way at a cost of about $90,000. The project was engineered and ready to start in November when the city council simply said “no,” letting the new council decide if the street was needed. The ordinance to start the street that was tabled in November and again in December was sent to the public works committee for review when the new council met earlier this week. But Williams says he has no intention of extending Elm Street at this time.

He would rather use the available $2 million as the 20 percent match needed for 80 percent federally funded projects. In short, he wants to leverage the city’s $2 million into $10 million. “It’s seed money,” he said. The experts working on the plan he has requested are with Metroplan, which distributes federal highway funds. Metroplan recently gave the mayor a draft of a study identifying street improvements totaling $208 million in construction costs alone, not counting engineering fees.

Williams says somewhere in that multitude of projects costing so much that they are completely out of reach must be a few that will give what he is looking for: “the biggest bang for the buck.” If there is a drawback to the plan, it is the time limit for using the $2 million. Dale Walker, budget manager for the clerk-treasurer, said as he understands it, the work needs to begin within three years of the time the bonds were sold. It’s already been more than a year, which gives the new mayor only two years to come up with his list of projects and get the work started. He says he is up to the challenge. The city also has about $1 million in bond money to use as a match for a railroad overpass beginning at the north edge of the industrial park on Highway 367 and ending at the northeast corner of Shiloh subdivision on Highway 38.

That project is the first phase of a proposed three-phase project approved by the Highway Department in December 2002. The second phase is an interchange onto U.S. 67-167 and the third would link the interchange to Highway 5. The new mayor was one of the council members who worked on a committee to get approval for a railroad overpass. Officials with the Highway Department said they would not even consider the overpass without including a third interchange to help with the traffic load, he said.

About 20,000 cars pass through downtown Cabot every day. The recently released study says the proposed interchange would take 4,000 to 5,000 vehicles out of downtown. The value of the overpass and interchange is questioned by some, especially members of a county level committee, who developed their own plan to control traffic in Cabot. Williams has planned a traffic summit for Feb. 23. Expected to attend are U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, state Rep. Susan Schulte, state Sen. Bobby Glover, Dan Flowers, who runs the Highway Department, and Jim McKenzie of Metroplan.

One of the activities planned for the day is the groundbreaking for the railroad overpass which is now estimated to cost about $7 million. But what Williams says he hopes will come out of the day is commitment from those in attendance to help the city pay for some of the work that needs to be done. He needs the state government to help improve existing roads and he needs the federal government to help with new construction, he said.