Leader Blues

Monday, March 02, 2009

TOP STORY >> Stimulus funds kick off several projects here

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Stimulus funds for “shovel-ready” central Arkansas road projects, previously estimated at $12.7 million, are now estimated at $14.2 million, increasing the likelihood—but not guaranteeing—that Graham Road in Jacksonville will be widened to four lanes in the near future.

The widening of Brockington Road in Sherwood has risen to the top tier—Class A Projects—and seems certain to receive the $4.6 million federal share, with another $1.2 million due from the city, its 20 percent.

Cabot interchange ramp improvements at Hwy. 5 and Hwy. 67/167 could be ready for obligated funds by May. That’s out of a different basket of money.

The stimulus bill allows federal funding to be up to 100 percent of a project instead of the usual 80 percent with a 20 percent match from the local government. But the Metroplan board of directors voted to stretch the stimulus funds by continuing to require the matching funds.

Overall, the $787 billion stimulus act contains $351 million for Arkansas roadways, including the $14.2 million for Central Arkansas.

The stimulus plan also includes about $10 million for Central Arkansas Transit Authority, including $5.6 million for 16 new buses to replace an aging fleet and 10 para transit vans, which would grow that fleet by two.

That could result in increased express bus service between Jacksonville and Little Rock, according to CATA director Betty Wineland, dependent in part on operating contributions from Jacksonville and Pulaski County.

The directors also approved the staff recommendation to fund all Class A projects, then Class B, and so on until the funds are exhausted.

Graham Road is ranked seventh of the seven projects, alone in Class E, because it’s not quite as ready for construction as the others—and one main reason for the infrastructure stimulus money is to move jobs along and put people to work.

In addition to the usual construction cost inflation, competition the boost in the number of highway projects that will suddenly start could drive prices up even further for labor materials and equipment. That makes it less likely that there would be money to fund the Graham Road widening.

The Brockington Road widening to four lanes is joined in the top tier, along with a railroad overpasses at Salem and on the South Loop south of Little Rock.

Funds can be fully obligated for those projects—as required by stimulus rules—within 12 months, as can funds for construction of a traffic roundabout on Pike Avenue in North Little Rock and the Little Maumelle pedestrian bridge.

Widening of Military Road in Benton County might be able to be fully obligated within 12 months.

No date has been published for when funds for the Graham Road widening could be obligated.

Despite the boost from the stimulus funds, the long-range outlook for highway funding is uncertain at best, the staff told the board.

The only continuing resolutions is at current levels, and they say that without raising federal gas taxes, there will not be an increase in available highway funds.

“Given the current state of politics as exhibited in the stimulus debate and the national economy, it is doubtful if the state Republicans would support any tax increase for any purpose at this time,” the staff wrote in a briefing to the directors.

Additionally, it is not clear that small metropolitan areas will continue to receive highway funds and it’s also unclear whether or not the Little Rock/North Little Rock/Conway metropolitan area would be considered small or large.