Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

TOP STORY > >Recession puts long-term road plans on hold

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

So uncertain is the state of the economy, gas and oil prices and consequently highway and other funding that the Metroplan board of directors Thursday voted to discontinue work on METRO 2035, a new long-range transportation plan, choosing instead to update the exiting long-range transportation plan, METRO 2030.

As the metropolitan planning agency for central Arkansas, Metroplan is required to have a long-range plan, according to Executive Director Jim McKenzie, but not necessarily 25 years out.

The Transportation Advisory Council, along with staff, recommended that the current plan—METRO 2030—be revisited to create, for lack of better term, METRO 2030.2. The revisited plan would focus on the issues in the short-term that would more directly affect current projects in the adopted plan.

That dovetails with Metroplan’s Operation Bottleneck, which in-volved the public in identifying problems with congestion and safety throughout Central Arkansas, many of which can be resolved fairly inexpensively.

The public input period is over, and the staff is dividing the problems up geographically and also according to difficulty and expense of addressing them, McKenzie said.

In recommending updating the old plan instead of making a new one, the Transportation Advisory Council members said unknowns about the level of federal program support and new program requirements under discussion in the surface transportation reauthorization debate, according to McKenzie.

It also takes into account the impact of higher gasoline prices on vehicle miles traveled and state and federal revenues. Green House gas regulations would likely impact the planning process.

Even if Central Arkansas manages to meet current ozone standards, the area will be out of compliance when the new standards finally take affect after current court challenges. That will affect the area’s ability to grow its highway system, among other things.

Not only do these uncertainties make it much more difficult to forecast the future out through 2035 with any level of certainty, extending the timeframe also generates a great deal of work on the part of the staff, McKenzie said. It would have to estimate the size of the surface transportation funds available, estimate the inflation of construction materials and also the affect of new ozone limits and regulations — and then do it again when there is more information.

McKenzie reported that the Congress was looking at a second stimulus program, which would have a significant public works element.

The focus would be on ready-to-go-to-bid projects for a quick economic boost; therefore, any entity that could invest its own funds in preliminary project engineering would have a better shot at getting funding from this source.