Leader Blues

Monday, July 30, 2007

TOP STORY >>North Belt gets route, no funding

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

At least two members of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department disagree on whether the second phase of the North Belt Freeway should be financed with tolls, since no highway money is available right now for the project.

Because no money has been allocated for construction, Highway Commissioner Carl Rosenbaum has said often he favors designing it as a toll road, to pay for itself and speed up construction.

Highway commissioner Cliff Hoofman of North Little Rock said Friday that he didn’t believe it was feasible to pay for the remaining sections by tolling them.

“I’m committed to see that we build the (remainder) if at all possible during my term on the commission,” Hoofman said.
Hoofman was just appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe to a 10-year term on the commission.

He said he believes the state would have to make existing portions of I-440 into toll roads all the way to the airport to make it feasible.

The 12.5-mile project is 20 years behind schedule and still lacks funding for at least five years. But despite last-ditch opposition by a handful of angry homeowners, the Metroplan board of directors Wednesday approved the state Highway and Transportation Department’s preferred alignment for the so-called Sherwood corridor of the North Belt Freeway.

The board is made up of county judges and mayors in central Arkansas or their appointees and a member of the state Highway Department. Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines voted against the plan.

Design work and purchase of some important right-of-way could begin by the end of the year, but no money is available to begin construction at least through 2011, according to Glenn Bolick, department spokesman.

The Sherwood City Council has approved a resolution supporting the proposed route and confirming that it conforms to both the city’s master street plan and master land-use plans, thus clearing the way for the Metroplan development.


RELIEVE CONGESTION

The North Belt Loop, a three-decades-old concept, has suffered setbacks through the years over the issue of the Sherwood alignment. It is intended to complete a northern loop around Little Rock to alleviate some congestion, primarily on I-40. It will be designated when complete as I-440.

The completed section runs from I-40 near Prothro Junction to Hwy. 67-167 in south Jacksonville.

When finished, it will continue through north Sherwood and Camp Robinson and meet up with I-40 and I-430 near Crystal Hill at an estimated cost of about $200 million — twice the original estimated cost of the entire project. Language in the current environmental-impact statement would allow construction of portions of the loop, according to Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan. That means that as money becomes available, sections of the alignment could be built between Hwy. 67-167 and Hwy.107, for instance, or between Hwy. 340 and Hwy. 365 to help alleviate congestion.


OPPOSED APPROVAL

Several residents of the Kellogg Road area or North Lake subdivision, many of them retired and some with disabilities, asked the board not to approve the alignment, which would either run through or near their homes.

But in the end, the 30-year-old project was approved by voice vote with Pulaski County Judge Villines and one or two other board members registering dissent.

Opponents also said they had gathered signatures of about 210 area residents opposed to the route. Villines has been supportive of the project over the years, but said he voted no Wednesday on the alignment to represent “my constituents” in north Pulaski County.

“That’s probably the best alignment they can come up with,” said Villines, “but I represent the unincorporated part of the county and they needed someone to express their feelings. I represent them.”


“IMPORTANT STEP”

Metroplan’s approval constituted “a step we’ve never had before, an important step,” according to Glenn Bolick, a Highway Department spokesman.

Still required is a record of decision by the Federal Highway Administration, which could be approved by the end of this year, according to Steve Mitchell, the Highway Department’s representative on the board. Then the department will begin a more detailed survey. The alignment could shift slightly, which is of little importance to most county residents, but could be of great importance to local homeowners, who aren’t even sure whether or not their homes will be taken for the project.
Mitchell said that once there is a design, there would be an additional public hearing. “There’s a lot of constraints,” said Mitchell, including floodways, flood plains, geographical feature and others.

“My hope is that once they are through with final design, at least all the right of way will be procured and they will cement the route and relieve some of the uncertainty in their lives,” said Metroplan’s McKenzie.

Jay Whisker, Jacksonville director of administration, said he was concerned that the preferred alignment kept creeping further north and that it might interfere with residents and development at the North Lakes subdivision.

But Jacksonville’s position has always been one of strong support for the North Belt Freeway, and he did vote to approve the alignment. Sherwood resient Wayne Riffle said the city had pushed the alignment north, out of city limits. Now, “we can’t make improvements, we can’t sell—the process is holding us hostage,” he said. “You’re destroying our neighborhood.”

His wife Bobby has a disability that prevents her from talking at normal volume, she said, and her daughter, who is immobile, can barely whisper. She expressed concern that with an interstate running past their house, she would be unable to hear her daughter, even when in distress.

Karen Engle lives across the street from the Riffles. She said she understands progress and doesn’t want to stand in the way, but she wants fair value for her home and wants to know as soon as possible the exact route—whether it would take her home or render it nearly worthless. “I can’t sell my home,” she said. “People won’t buy (not knowing),” she said. “I need help with this.”

Kellogg Road residents were assured that there would not be an interchange taking and discharging more traffic onto their road.

“I put a lot of money and sweat into building my home,” said Rudy Ealy, who has lived at the west end of Mine Road since 1992. He bought his land with assurances that the North Belt would run far south of him, approximately in the east-west Hwy. 107 corridor.”

“I need to know that you are good for your word.” He pointed out that Sherwood’s “50-year” plan affects him even though he lives outside they city. “That’s crazy,” he said.

He said officials had been “disingenuous from the beginning.”