Leader Blues

Monday, December 03, 2007

TOP STORY >>Strained funds could hinder local projects

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

The state Highway and Transportation Department is studying several projects important to area residents, but lack of money is among the obstacles, director Dan Flowers told the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce at a reception Tuesday.

Statewide, the department has identified nearly $20 billion worth of needs over the next 10 years, but only about $4.5 billion worth of anticipated revenue. Tax revenues are flat, but highway construction costs have increased as much as 30 percent in one year, according to Flowers, in large part tied to increasing oil prices and competition for steel, concrete and asphalt with emerging countries like China and India.


NEEDS GREAT

“Our needs are great,” said Highway Commission chairman Jonathan Barnett, “to help this community and others with economic development, to reduce congestion and increase safety.

“We’ve had no increase on fuel taxes since 1999,” Barnett told the group.

“Building infrastructure takes time,” Barnett continued. “Give us the resources, we can’t do it alone.”

Flowers said he favored Gov. Mike Beebe’s plan to put a severance tax on natural gas taken from the Fayetteville Shale, a tax that could generate $100 million a year.

“One hundred million dollars annually is significant,” he said.

That would be $1 billion over 10 years.


NORTH BELT DECISION

Flowers said that toll roads were unlikely to pay for themselves, or for the North Belt Loop, but that new, regional fuel taxes could generate money to pay for many of central Arkansas’ needs, should residents decide to raise their own fuel taxes.

Except for fine-tuning a Sherwood interchange, the long-disputed route for the North Belt loop from Hwy. 440 through Sherwood and Camp Robinson to I-430 is pretty well settled now said Flowers. But money to pay for it has not been identified.

That final 13 miles are expected to cost between $270 million and $340 million, Flowers said.

“We have the final environmental impact statement and expect a record of decision by 2008 and can then start as soon as the money is available,” Flowers said.

“It will have to be done in stages.”

The Jacksonville chamber holds a reception for the state highway commissioners and officials annually to have a conversation about the hopes and needs of the community, according to Mayor Tommy Swaim.


JAMES STREET STUDY

A study to widen Hwy. 67/167 between the James Street overpass and Vandenberg Boulevard is completed, but neither the engineering nor a source of revenues for the job is in hand, Flowers said.

That project would also make the frontage roads one way between those two interchanges, widen the James Street overpass and create turnarounds at each end, turning the frontage roads into a one-way counterclockwise loop.

The Highway Department is moving forward in efforts to make Hwy. 107 four lanes all the way to the back gate at Little Rock Air Force Base, he said.

Beginning early next year, work will begin to four-lane Hwy. 107 from Bear Paw Drive to Brockington Road.


VANDENBERG EXITS

Having completed the major work for a northbound exit from Hwy. 67/167 onto T.P. White Drive north of Vandenberg, the department has begun studying, at the request of the chamber, a northbound entrance ramp from T.P. White Drive north of Vandenberg onto Hwy. 67/167.

Flowers said progress continues on the six-laning of Hwy. 67/167 from I-40 to Redmond Road, but that lack of money could prevent continuing the widening to Cabot.

Construction is underway to widen the northbound corridor, including a new, expensive bridge of Bayou Meto.


GRAHAM ROAD WIDENING

The widening of Graham Road from Oak Street to Loop Road, to be paid for with funds through Metroplan, is expected to cost about $6 million, he said.

The first right of way could be purchased in 2008 and some construction could begin in 2009.

The department expects work to start by 2009 to widen Hwy. 107 from Jacksonville Cato Road to Bayou Meto, Flowers said.
“The portion from General Samuels to the west entrance has not been programmed yet,” Flowers added.


WISH LIST

On the wish list presented by Swaim were:

Complete the North Belt Loop, with the section between Hwy. 67/167 and Hwy. 107 first.

Study of the need for an interchange at Coffelt Road, south of state Hwy. 5.

Widen Hwy. 67/167 from Redmond Road to Hwy. 5.

Four lane Hwy. 161 from Second Street to Rixey Road.

Straighten and widen West Main Street to four lanes from Redmond Road to Hwy. 107.