Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TOP STORY > >Officials can ask for road funding

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Arkansas could get as much as $13 billion for local transportation projects as part of the federal stimulus package.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln and other members of the Arkansas congressional delegation are eager to hear from local officials about projects they want done.

Pinch-hitting for Lincoln’s aide Donna Kay Yeargan, Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie last week told board members,
“Blanche says she needs feedback from elected officials.”

“I have a packet together and ready to go,” said Ward Mayor Art Brooke, who was elected president of the Metroplan board for 2009.

Brooke also handed a ceremonial gavel to outgoing president Tab Townsell of Conway.

McKenzie encouraged central Arkansas mayors and county judges to contact the congressional delegation with any projects they have ready to go.

Widening Brockington Road in Sher-wood and Graham Road in Jacksonville are two examples of the kind of shovel-ready projects so far unpaid for that could benefit quickly when Congress approves a version of President-elect Barack Obama’s infrastructure/economic stimulus bill early next year, according to McKenzie,

“We need to remake our crumbling transportation system,” Obama said Friday in introducing Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood as transportation secretary.

New funding could expedite the widening of state Hwy. 107 from Bearpaw to Brockington.

The money could also move up the widening of southbound Hwy. 67/167 from Redmond Road to Kiehl Avenue.

McKenzie told Metroplan board members that he had heard discussion of a stimulus package of more than $500 billion, of which perhaps $13 billion could go directly to Arkansas transportation.

“We have a list of shovel-ready projects sent to (Cong. Vic) Snyder,” McKenzie said.

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” said Scott Bennett, the state Highway Department’s member on the board.

“Lists don’t mean anything other than we have a lot ready to go.”

He said Obama’s team had said they wanted projects ready to go in 30 to 60 days after authorization, but jobs routinely take about six months to move through the process.

He said he thought there would be $60 billion available nationwide during the first couple of years.

“We say you’ve got to give us flexibility,” Bennett said. “Don’t put money in projects that already have committed money.

“We turned in a $1.1 billion list,” Bennett said. “We could double that.”

He said the money could be spent on projects already identified with some work begun on the Surface Transportation Project list and also on the Transportation Improvement Program.

“This is a very fluid situation,” Bennett said.

Answering a question from Benton Mayor Rick Holland, McKenzie said there were relatively few city projects known to be shovel-ready.

Roads are not the only infrastructure that government money might be used for in central Arkansas.

Transit, building or repairing water systems or sewage systems like the ones on the I-430 bridge; insulating public buildings and putting energy-efficient heating and cooling systems in them; improvements to airports, rural utilities, rehabilitation and maintenance of hydropower facilities; funding public housing; and building and repairing energy-transmission networks are all possible improvements.

State Rep. Kathy Webb, chairman of the governor’s commission on global warming, gave a short recap of the 350-page report the commission has submitted to Gov. Mike Beebe.

The report contains 53 recommendations of which several could be proposed as laws in the next session.

By a one-vote margin, the commission recommended a moratorium on coal-fired power plants, Webb said, a proposal so controversial that she doesn’t expect it to be submitted as a bill in the legislature.

The commission was broad-based with environmentalists, energy producers, professors, business people, legislators, state agency heads and others, but it actually managed to pass 48 recommendations either unanimously or nearly so, she said.

The commission recommended a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, 35 percent below by 2025 and 50 percent reduction by 2035.

It called for the state to lead by example, decreasing its own energy usage by 30 percent by 2035, through the purchase of more efficient cars and trucks, better insulation of buildings, more efficient heating and cooling and perhaps a shortened work week.

Also, the commission unanimously called for a long-range study leading to a state water plan.

In other action, Holland presented state Sen. Shane Broadway with the Regional Jack Evans Leadership Award, named after the late former Sherwood mayor.

“Senator Broadway has been a leader in the General Assembly on the critical issues of education and economic development,” Holland said.

Broadway called the award an honor and said, “I appreciate all Metroplan does. It helps us craft better policy.”