Leader Blues

Monday, March 23, 2009

TOP STORY >> Mayors say trip to D.C. was worth it

By JOAN McCOY and RICK KRON
Leader staff writers

Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams went to Washington this week looking for $19.5 million to build the proposed north interchange and came back with a promise of help getting $3 million to $5 million for engineering and right-of-way acquisition.

It’s not what he hoped for, but the mayor says it’s a good start.

Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim, along with aldermen Kenny Elliott and Gary Fletcher, also attended the National League of Cities meeting and said the trip was worth it.

Elliott and Fletcher are two of the six candidates vying to replace Swaim when he retires in July.

Swaim said the one thing he got out of the general meetings and the number of committee meetings he chaired was that a lot of cities across the country are hurting. “Some cities have been laying off police and firefighters, not passing pay increases and cutting budgets.” He said Arkansas clearly seems to be holding its own compared to other states and Jacksonville is financially sound.

Swaim is proud of that fact, but admits that a large portion of the stimulus package does not reward the hard work of the city and its citizens to do right. “Many of the grants are based on financial needs,” he explained.

Fletcher referred to the four-day meeting as a giant pep rally. “I give the administration an A for effort,“ Fletcher said. He said the administration was trying hard to get city officials to buy into the stimulus. “They put a positive spin on everything and really wanted us to carry that message back home.”

Fletcher added that the various cabinet secretaries and department heads were tossing the words millions and billions “like we would talk about fives and tens.”

Fletcher said the stimulus plan is promising a lot. “I pray for its success,” he said.

Elliott said he learned a lot from the meetings and has piles of paperwork to look through and see what Jacksonville can use or be eligible for.

He’s excited about the $7.2 billion earmarked for broadband and computer access for low-income areas and families. “This could be a big help for Sunnyside,” Elliot said, but he is still looking at eligibility guidelines for the grants.

He said the city is also eligible for money from the justice department to hire additional police officers. “The federal government will pay 100 percent of the salaries and benefits of the new officers for the first three years, and then the city has to take over the costs,” Elliot explained.

He said officials hope the federal program would add 55,000 new police officers nationwide.

Williams said the interchange promise came from Cong. Marion Berry (D-Gillett) who said he would include a special appropriation to start the project in the next five-year highway-spending plan, which will be developed in the fall.

It will likely be January 2010 before it is known whether the money to begin the project is approved, the mayor said. If it is, then the money for construction could be included in the five-year highway spending plan that would start in 2015.

“Obviously, I’m hoping to get the whole thing funded in the next (five-year) cycle,” the mayor said. But realistically, he said it could take up to three years to identify the location, acquire the right-of-way and engineer the project.

So if construction funding isn’t available for five or six years, then at least the mayor says he has reason to be optimistic that it will come.

“Once you start down the road, you have to get it in phases,” he said.

This was Williams’ third trip to the capital, in search of financial help for Cabot.

“Up there, you’re outside your comfort zone,” he said. “I’m up there as a mayor of a small town with huge needs. We have to work hard to stay ahead of the growth. Anything short of that and we just get bowled over.”

The north interchange has always been part of a large plan to help manage traffic in Cabot, a plan that also includes the railroad overpass that is supposed to open in the early spring.

The overpass will connect Hwy. 38 to Hwy. 367. The proposed north interchange would connect the freeway to Hwy. 367 making it possible to exit the freeway and get to Hwy. 38 without going through downtown Cabot.

Metroplan, which distributes federal money for road projects, estimates the overpass together with a north interchange will take 4,000 to 5,000 cars a day out of downtown Cabot.

The overpass alone will not relieve downtown traffic, but it will keep about 100 buses off the railroad track.

Cabot was number 13 on the list in the state to get federal money for a railroad overpass. But when the school agreed to use the overpass instead of crossing the railroad tracks, the proposed project moved up in priority.