Leader Blues

Monday, February 26, 2007

TOP STORY >>Tolls could finance last leg of North Belt

IN SHORT: Highway might not get built without charging motorists.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Put a couple of toll booths on the missing Sherwood segment of the North Belt Freeway, and construction could begin almost immediately, according to Highway Commissioner Carl Rosenbaum.

Otherwise, it might never be built, according to Rosenbaum.
With little fanfare, the state Highway and Transportation Department completed its amended environmental assessment to choose the North Belt route through Sherwood and forwarded its preferred route to the Federal Highway Administration.

Even if it passes muster with the FHA and with the general public at hearings set for March 20-21, there is no money in sight to complete the North Belt Loop from Hwy. 67-167 across Sherwood, through Camp Robinson and on to the I-40/I430 interchange at Crystal Hill, Rosenbaum said this week at a reception hosted by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

But Rosenbaum says the final 12.7-mile, $276 million section could pay for itself with tollbooths where it intersects Hwy. 67/167 and also Hwy. 107.

The Highway Department forecasts daily traffic on that section of the loop in excess of 30,000 vehicles a day.
Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim said Thursday that he would have preferred the northernmost route for sake of Jacksonville growth, but recognized it would be much more expensive.

Sherwood Mayor Dan Stedman says the new route is within the larger area previously designated as acceptable by the city council and that it does not conflict with the city’s master street plan.

In 2003, a different proposed route through Sherwood threatened homes, developments and neighborhoods, spawning a grassroots movement in the suburbs and the eventual rejection of that route by the city council, which refused to amend the street plan to accommodate the route.

Federal Highway funds in central Arkansas must pass through Metroplan, which requires any project to comply with the local master street plan.

Greg Chastine, one of the leaders of the 2003 suburban revolt, said this week that it sounded as if the new route would be acceptable to most area residents.

In addition to interchanges at Hwy. 667/167, Hwy. 107, Batesville Pike and I-40/I-430, the stretch of highway would include overpasses but no access at Oneida Drive in Jacksonville and Kellogg Acres Road in Sherwood.

The Highway Commission could make the decision to construct the missing link as a toll road. Then it would need a cost estimate, have an investment-grade toll study done, determine the location of the toll booths, the estimated traffic and then run an analysis to determine the optimum toll rate, according to David Nelms, spokesman for the state Highway Department.

If the numbers were favorable — and they were on an earlier feasibility study — then the commission could sell bonds to be paid off from toll proceeds, he said.

“We would not be (in favor of) a toll road,” said Stedman, “but if that’s the only way we can get the thing constructed, we may have to hold our noses. I think this project needs to be completed not only for Sherwood but for the entire county.”

Public hearings will be held 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 20 at the Church of the Nazarene, 9860 Brockington Road and March 21 at Cato Elementary School, 9906 Jacksonville Cato Road.