Leader Blues

Monday, February 23, 2009

TOP STORY >> Metroplan to act on stimulus bill

By ERIC FRANCIS
Special to The Leader

Projects in Sherwood, Cabot and Jacksonville are on the short list for how $14.2 million in federal stimulus money for local projects will be spent.

Metroplan, the regional planning agency for Pulaski, Lonoke, Saline and Faulkner counties, had produced a tentative list of “shovel-ready” projects in central Arkansas before the federal stimulus bill was finalized. Its board will make the final allocation when it meets at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Little Rock.

“We have a number of projects that were suggested when the whole stimulus package was brought up,” said Richard Magee, deputy director of Metroplan. “We have some that were already in our pipeline, and a combination of those plus these new projects is what we’re trying to sift through.

“The problem is trying to determine if they’re ‘shovel-ready,’” he added. “Are they actually close to ready to go?”

The projects identified by the Metroplan staff for consideration by the full board – which is composed of mayors and county judges from its member governments – include Graham Road in Jacksonville; Brockington Road in Sherwood; the interchange of Highways 67/167 and 5 in Cabot; Military Road in Benton; the Salem rail-grade separation in Conway; the South Loop rail-grade separation in Little Rock; a roundabout on Pike Avenue in North Little Rock; and in Pulaski County, Kanis Road bridge replacements, a pedestrian bridge over the Little Maumelle River, and improvements to the Big Dam Bridge.

While the initial list produced by the Metroplan staff showed costs ranging from $500,000 to $8.37 million for these projects, Magee noted that they have since reviewed each project with local officials and some of those amounts will have changed by Wednesday’s meeting. Also, the original list anticipated $12.7 million in stimulus money, but that grew by $1.5 million in the final package.

The influx of federal money will not only allow pay for a number of projects that are ready to go, Pulaski County Judge Floyd G. “Buddy” Villines III said, but it will also free up some funds already allocated for those projects to be put to use elsewhere.

“We’ve got some money already in the form of the ICE-T bill last year, the federal program,” Villines said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can get the most bang for our bucks.”

Villines said he understands that local governments have up to one year to get their projects under contract.

“But I think it’ll go pretty fast,” he said.

In Sherwood, $4.6 million of Surface Transportation Program funds allocated for the Brockington Road project would become available for another project.

Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman said that while the Brockington Road widening project is already funded by the Highway Department, approval of stimulus money for it would mean additional road work could be done in the city.

“Probably some improvements on, perhaps, Woodruff or Maryland,” she said of likely uses for the $4.6 million that would be freed up.

The widening of Brockington to four lanes is actually already under-way, with phase one starting at Indian Bay and going north.

Phase two, which is what’s on the Metroplan short list, would go from Indian Bay south to Kiehl Avenue, she said.

The Graham Road project in Jacksonville involves widening it to four lanes from Loop Road to Oak Street, a distance of about 1.14 miles. Mayor Tommy Swaim said he’s also checking into other potential projects in the event more stimulus money becomes available.

“We’re doing the engineering and design work on two other projects to hopefully get some of the later stimulus money,” said Swaim. “That would be the straightening of West Main Street and the extension of Oneida Street to the West Main cutoff.”

Those were not “shovel-ready” at the time the stimulus project list was initially put together, the mayor said.

As for a timetable on the Graham Road project, Swaim said he didn’t have one, but noted that if the stimulus money hadn’t come along, it could havve been 2011 before it happened.

“The Graham Road project was on the Transportation Improvement Program and was to be funded hopefully within the next two years,” he said. “This just moves it forward that period of time.”

Swaim cautioned that there was still “a lot unknown” about the stimulus package – for example, the regulations regarding expenditures haven’t yet been released – but he hoped that it would have “a long-term effect” and that additional money would come out later for more local projects.

Metroplan’s Magee noted that in some cases, money from other sources would actually be freed up because of the stimulus spending.

The work on the Hwy. 67/167 exit at Hwy. 5 will be in the northwest quadrant of that interchange, which Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams has said would help alleviate congestion there.

The $14.2 million going to local projects will actually be coming out of a much larger appropriation going to the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, said spokesman Randy Ort.

While that number hasn’t been nailed down yet – the federal Highway Administration had 21 days from the signing of the stimulus bill to draft orders for state highway departments – Ort said that “our best guess is it looks like Arkansas is going to get in the neighborhood of $350 million to $360 million.”

Some of that will go to Metroplan and some to West Memphis, which is part of the metropolitan planning area that includes Memphis. The rest will be spent by the Highway Department.

And no, Ort said, they can’t say where yet. At least not specifically.

“We have gone on the record that we plan to spread it around the state,” he said. “We have documented around 150 or so projects we could have ready to go within the time frame mandated, and those projects are well over $1 billion.”

Once the federal Highway Administration has issued its marching orders to state departments, Ort said, half of the stimulus money on a given projects must be obligated within 120 days, with the remainder spent within one year.

According to an MSNBC interview with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) posted on the network’s Web site, the stimulus money should create 31,000 jobs in Arkansas.