Leader Blues

Friday, November 21, 2008

TOP STORY > >Cabot seeks road funds

By JOAN McCOY
Leader staff writer

The appreciation dinner this week in Cabot for the Arkansas Highway Commission was more than a gathering of every influential elected or appointed official in Lonoke County as well as aides to members of the state’s congressional delegation. It was an opportunity for the mayor to thank the highway department for all it has done for the city in the past two years and also point out that there is more to be done.

While guests dined on brisket and twice-baked potatoes, prepared by the cooks at First Baptist Church and served by Cabot’s ROTC kids, Mayor Eddie Joe Williams narrated a 15-minute virtual tour of Cabot showing improvements, such as wider streets, striping for more lanes and additional traffic lights, made with the help of Highway Department money or expertise.

“Even a simple permit can be a pain in the butt sometimes,” Williams said. “But you guys make it possible for us, and for that I say, ‘Thank you.’”

But gratitude aside, what the mayor told the commissioners he wants now is money to build a north interchange in Cabot – $20 million to be exact.

“We have just so much money, Eddie Joe. You know that,” Carl Rosenbaum, the commissioner for the Cabot area, said before turning the microphone over to Scott Bennett, the highway department assistant chief engineer for planning, who further explained why a north interchange for Cabot is not likely to happen soon.

Bennett said fuel consumption has been down and that gas tax contributes heavily to his department’s budget. Funding from the federal government also is down.

Altogether, the highway department has only about $900 million coming in and only about $267 million that the commissioners can spend in their districts. And the cost of simply maintaining existing roads in their current condition is estimated at $1.6 billion over the next 10 years.

“We’re going to do the best we can with what we have,” Bennett concluded. But in a later interview with the mayor it was clear that he doesn’t give up that easy.

Approval for the $10.8 million armory that will be going up next year was supposed to take five years to fund, but Cabot had a plan and pushed for the armory and was ready with the land when others weren’t. It will be built beside the $7.2 million overpass (connecting Hwy. 367 to Hwy. 38) that could open in the next 30 days. Now Cabot is ready for a north interchange connecting U.S. 67/167 to Arkansas Hwy. 367. The overpass was the first phase, he said. It’s time to get started with the second.

“You have to have an overpass before you can have a north interchange,” he said. “That’s done. Now it’s time to move on to the next step.

“Somebody’s going to get it. It might as well be Cabot. We’re here. We’re committed. We’re not asking for a handout; we’re asking for a hand up,” he said.

In the meantime, the mayor is widening Locust Street to get it ready for the increased traffic load that he believes will be dumped there when the new railroad overpass opens. The $2 million in bond money the city had to work with when Williams took office was used on the projects that were highlighted in his presentation to the highway commissioners. But he said there is still about $75,000 that came from the impact fee, now discontinued, that that can be used to complete work on Locust, which could include a traffic light.

The overpass and Locust Street will become the new bypass for traffic congestion downtown, he said.