Leader Blues

Monday, February 01, 2010

TOP STORY >> Metroplan approves modest road projects

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

A proposed revision of the Metro 2030 long-range transportation plan for central Arkansas has 13 new projects, with two in the Jacksonville or Cabot area, including part of Hwy. 167/67 and widening Hwy. 107.

The Metroplan board Thursday unanimously approved both the draft Metro 2030 plan and a companion draft 2010-2013 transportation improvement program.

Both are out for a 30-day public comment period.

While completion of the North Belt Freeway is on the long-range plan, no funds have been located to build it. The plan estimates the cost at about $700 million by 2030 if any work is done on it at all. The earliest proposed expenditure, other than buying some right of way, would be $16.5 million in the 2014 to 2019 time span, with another $685 million between 2020 and 2030.

One of the two new projects listed on the plan is a cable median barrier on Hwy. 67/167 from the Vandenberg exit at Jacksonville to Hwy. 89 at Cabot, with a projected cost of about $2 million if constructed in 2012. Itís aimed at keeping vehicles from crossing over the median and into the path of oncoming traffic in the other lanes.

The other new project would widen to four lanes Hwy. 107 from Bayou Meto to north of Arnold Drive, projected to cost $11.6 million when bid and constructed in 2013.

Because of budget constraints, Metroplan only updated a version of its improvement plan instead of creating an entirely new long-range transportation plan, required to be updated every five years. When the deadline for a comprehensive 2035 plan approached, Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan, said that staff with approval of the board, just tweaked the existing 2030 plan, calling it 2030.2, like a revision of a software program.

Among those uncertainties are whether the Federal Surface Trans-portation Act will be renewed and at what funding level and whether proposed stricter new ozone standards by the Environmental Protection Agency will finally put Central Arkansas out of compliance and at risk for having to scale back highway construction.

The state Highway Department has told Metroplan to expect a second round of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act money to be announce soon, probably about the same $14 million available for use in Central Arkansas with rules similar to the rules last time.

Also unknown is if or how the state will increase its highway funds through new revenues.
Gov. Mike Beebe has appointed a Blue Ribbon Highway Funding Committee to study ways to increase funding, which is stagnant even as costs and needs grow.

McKenzie said that as soon as some of those questions are settled, he expects Metroplan to begin a real and comprehensive 2035 long-range plan.

Among the problems with the long-range planning is forecasting the costs of projects being let to bid five, 10 and even 20 years from now, according to McKenzie.

Perhaps the most exciting project on tap for Jacksonville, Ward, Austin and Cabot area residents is the reconstruction and widening of the old, narrow and deadly Hwy. 67/167 overpass at Main Street Jacksonville.

While it appears to be included in the $53 million widening of the highway from Redmond Road to Vandenberg Boulevard, which is in the long-range plan, it is broken out more specifically in the draft 2010-2013 Transportation Improvement Program, also approved unanimously by the board Thursday.

Also on tap for that stretch is the widening and reconstruction of the Hwy. 67/167 bridge over Redmond Road and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Thatís estimated to cost about $6 million when bids are let in 2012.

The TIP has $4 million committed for that job, which is slated to go to bid in 2013.

The widening of Hwy. 67/167 between Kiehl and Hwy. 440 should be let to bid this year at an estimated cost of $12.7 million. In all, the 2030.2 plan commits $3.44 billion through 2030. About $1.4 billion of that is for construction that increases traffic capacity, while about $1.9 is for maintenance and repair.

That doesnít include $615 million earmarked for transit ó mostly CATA bus operations. That tentatively includes $1.25 million for a public transit system in Conway.

Bus service in the Jacksonville Sherwood express route continues at the capacity, with improvements costing about $5 million through 2030.

Additional bus service for Jacksonville/Cabot and for Sherwood was studied but not funded.