Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

TOP STORY >> Road work to ramp up as stimulus paves way

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

Two Pulaski-Lonoke County corridors will get new asphalt paid for with federal economic stimulus funds totaling $2.75 million. But the Lonoke County judge is unhappy with the selection process.

The projects are among 103 road and bridge improvements statewide approved recently by the Arkansas Highway Commission, bringing $351.5 million into the state economy as authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2001. President Obama signed into the act into law Feb. 17.

The federal funds will free up additional state and local funds, bringing the total available for road and bridge improvements to $421 million.

For repairs to 2.8 miles of Hwy. 70 running from the Pulaski County line east into Lonoke County, $750,000 is allocated. For repairs to the nine-mile stretch of Hwy. 165 between I-440 and Hwy. 386, $2 million in stimulus funds is allocated. Both projects are slated to go to bid within the next 90 days and may be among jobs starting by late April.

“I didn’t know they were in bad enough shape that they needed an overlay, but apparently state highway department engineers think so,” was what Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman had to say this week about the two projects. He said that he and other county judges around the state are unhappy that they were not given any say in how the stimulus funds will be spent.

“We feel kind of left out – that is a pretty good way to put it,” he said, adding that of the 103 projects selected by the Highway Commission, 22 are asphalt overlay. Because that kind of project is quick to get going – and hence fitting the ARRA funding criterion of “shovel ready” – Troutman opined that was an important factor in the commissioners’ decision.

Of the $351.5 million in ARRA funding for Arkansas for road and bridge projects, $15.7 million goes directly to the state’s two largest metropolitan areas. West Memphis will receive $1.5 million.

The remaining $14.2 million will go for projects in Pulaski, Lonoke, Saline and Faulkner counties. Metroplan, the transportation planning agency for central Arkansas, has authorized spending the funds on a host of shovel-ready projects, which moves the widening of Graham Road up on the list.

The state Highway Department is providing design, survey and environmental work for the project,. But an actual start date is uncertain, at least another year or two at the earliest, say officials, and will hinge on a funding reauthorization by Congress later this year.

“The stimulus funds took projects already in the pipeline further along and allowed us to move Graham Road ahead on the list, but we will have to see how far the money stretches,” said Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan.

Highway Department spokesman Glenn Bolick explained that toward the end of 2008, all county highway departments were asked to identify shovel-ready projects – those that could start in 120 days.

By federal law, half of the ARRA funds have to be obligated by the end of June, with the rest obligated by March 2010.

“One-hundred and thirty projects — $1.2 billion worth of jobs – were awaiting funding,” Bolick said. “The challenge was to decide which projects to spend money on.”

In shortening the list, commissioners tried to come up with an array of projects statewide that would provide bidding opportunities for diverse sectors of the economy including concrete work, asphalt overlay, and bridge and building construction, Bolick explained.

“The spirit of the bill Obama signed into law was to stimulate the economy. The main question was not, ‘What is your most pressing need as a highway project?’”

“By using the money in this way, we are getting the equivalent of an extra full year of federally funded highway improvement projects,” said Dan Flowers, director of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department.