Leader Blues

Monday, February 05, 2007

TOP STORY >>City, county are at odds over roads

IN SHORT: Competing plans discussed for a third interchange in Cabot as mayor pushes for a northern site, while others want it farther south.

Leader staff writer

As the first snow of the year was falling Wednesday evening, making Cabot streets impassable in places, county and city leaders met to discuss building new roads to handle the city’s increasing traffic.

Larry Odom, a county justice of the peace, presented the plan that came out of the county transportation committee appointed by Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman, and Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams talked briefly about the plan that he has been a part of for many years.

At issue is where to build a third interchange to handle some of the 27,000 cars a day that get off U.S. Hwy. 67-167 in Cabot. The mayor favors a north interchange tied to the railroad overpass that should be under construction this spring.

Odom wants it built between the two existing interchanges. And he would prefer that the new interchange be connected to the $7 million, mostly federally funded railroad overpass that Williams pushed through when he was a council member.

The assumption is that since there is no money to build even one interchange, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be any money for two. And the county committee wants to make sure that the public is aware of the two options.

The plan from the county committee also includes upgrading new roads and building new ones, including the road connecting Hwy. 5 to the new Wal-Mart. The county has spent about $750,000 to build the road. Williams is prepared to spend $250,000 to build a bridge over the ditch that separates the new road from the new store and to blacktop the road.

The county asked the city for help on the new road last year, but came away empty-handed.

The long-range traffic plan from the county committee came to light in 2006, when then-Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh, former Alderman David Polantz and State Rep. Susan Schulte, unlike all the other government officials in the area, refused to sign off on it.

It became a campaign issue in the Republican primary, when former Justice of the Peace Bill Pedersen, a candidate for mayor, touted it as a better plan than the one Williams supported.

But never before has the rhetoric been taken to a public forum. And when the more than two-hour meeting ended, both Williams and Odom said they had not been swayed, but they agreed that at least the meeting was a cordial one.

“It’s nice to come here and get a smile,” Odom said near the end of his presentation. “We got thrown out on our ear a couple of times (in 2006).”

Metroplan, the agency that funnels federal highway money to cities, says a north interchange together with the railroad overpass would take 4,000-5,000 cars out of downtown Cabot.

Odom said during the meeting that traffic counts from 2004 show that 7,500 cars use the Highway 89 interchange every day and a staggering 19,600 use the one at Highway 5.

“It’s a dead giveaway that we need a cloverleaf between those two,” Odom told the mixed group made up mostly of Cabot City Council members and Lonoke County Quorum Court members.

Williams doesn’t disagree that an interchange between the existing ones is needed. But he wants the north interchange first.
Williams worked for the railroad for 30 years, and he says the state would not agree to build an overpass, so the Polk Street railroad crossing could be closed unless it was part of an interchange.

Building an overpass alone will not help with traffic congestion, he said, but it will take all the school buses off the railroad, because the school district has promised that buses will use the overpass instead of crossing the tracks.

The overpass will connect Highway 367 to Highway 38. It will be built between Cabot and Austin.

Williams said building it closer to downtown would be disruptive and more expensive.

He also said the plan for the interchange to be built later that he supports is backed by studies and public hearings. It is the culmination of years of work mostly by himself and Alderman Ed Long.

“For me and Ed, it’s been an eight-year project,” the mayor said of the overpass and north interchange.

“These are just some ideas on a piece of paper. It’s not a study,” he said of the plan from the county committee, which Odom said met as a group only four or five times.

In between meetings, Odom plotted the city’s growth areas on maps.

Odom said during the meeting that he drove every new road and pig trail in Cabot and the surrounding area to find the growth areas. He also collected information on platted subdivisions.

And he took all his findings back to the committee, which helped with the traffic plan.

Troutman has asked the highway department for an official study that would, he hopes, substantiate the committee’s plan.

Odom says he believes the highway department will agree to it. In the meantime, Williams is planning what he is calling a traffic summit for Feb. 23, with Dan Flowers, the director of the highway department, and Carl Rosenbaum, the highway commissioner for the Cabot area, expected to attend.

“It’s the biggest thing to happen in Cabot in 20 years,” Williams said of getting a commitment from the two men to attend the meeting.