Wednesday, March 30, 2005

TOP STORY>> Metroplan could decide on overpass

IN SHORT: Cabot has to raise funds to get railroad bridge built early or wait several more years.
By Joan McCoy
Leader staff writer

The board of Metroplan, the agency that distributes federal highway money, meets today in Little Rock and could decide what steps Cabot must take toward construction of a railroad overpass this year.

The proposed Polk Street overpass is touted as the only means of keeping school buses off the railroad tracks and as the first step in a north interchange that would connect Highway 38 to Highway 5.

If the board decides the project will be considered for funding three years ahead of schedule, the city would need to raise about $700,000 for its 20 percent match for the $5 million project before contracts are signed with the state Highway Department, possibly in October.

The city’s alternative to raising the needed cash by fall is to set aside about $230,000 a year for the next three years and build the overpass in 2008, the original construction date. The city has set aside $260,000 since the project started about six years ago. The railroad also has agreed to pay about $75,000 for the actual bridge.

Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh says the overpass is a priority, but the city simply doesn’t have the money and he is opposed to raising taxes to pay for it.

Moving up the construction of the Cabot overpass was discussed during the February Metroplan meeting and since then two prospective candidates for mayor have gone public with their opinions about it.

Former Alderman Eddie Joe Williams, who announced his intention to run for mayor shortly after Stumbaugh took office, says the city should make every effort to build the overpass now. He criticized Stumbaugh during the March council meeting, saying the mayor is prepared to abandon the project over a feud with local developers.

The developers chose to annex into Austin rather than pay for infrastructure required by Cabot. The mayor denies that he used the overpass as leverage to keep Austin from annexing the upscale, 600-home subdivision, but says he believes that if part of the overpass is inside Austin city limits, Austin should pay for part of it.

Darren Waymack, one of the owners of the subdivision, said last week that a section of commercial property separates the residential subdivision from the proposed overpass.

Alderman David Polantz has not announced his candidacy, though Stumbaugh says Polantz intends to run for mayor. Polantz says only that several city residents have told him he should run.

Polantz has called a meeting for Monday of the council’s finance committee to discuss increasing the city millage from 3.5 to 4.5 to pay for the overpass and to build the community center. The center was budgeted at $3.5 million, including $500,000 for the dirt work. But the low bid for construction came in $1.2 million over budget.

Polantz says he wants to take the millage increase and 20-year bonds for the overpass and community center to the voters for approval.

If the millage increase is not approved, the city should save toward building the overpass in 2008 and downsize the community center to fit the $3 million available to build it, he said.

If the millage is approved it would not be collected until 2006. The city could use the $260,000 set aside to build the overpass to make payments until revenue from the increased millage comes in, he said. The increased millage would raise about $160,000 a year, he said.

Once allies, Stumbaugh now criticizes Polantz for making too many demands on city employees’ time and for trying to pass legislation that would diminish his control at city hall.

The mayor said Tuesday that he was aware that Polantz had called a finance committee meeting, but if Metroplan says Cabot might be in the running for project funding this year, he intends to call a meeting of the full council instead for the same time, 7 p.m. Monday.

He wants all eight council members involved in the discussion, he said.

Jim McKenzie, Metroplan executive director, apologized for the uproar that followed the announcement that the overpass could be funded this year.

McKenzie said Tuesday that nothing is certain until the end of August when the federal fiscal year ends. At that time it will be known definitely whether projects in Little Rock that are ahead of Cabot’s will be ready for construction.

If they aren’t, then the Cabot overpass could be next in line because it appears ready to go. The engineering has been completed. The public hearings have been held and the rights-of-way have been acquired at a total cost of about $450,000 with Cabot paying about $90,000.

But McKenzie emphasized that nothing is certain at this point. He said Metroplan staff is constantly monitoring progress on Little Rock projects that have been in the works for a decade and that at this point all he can do is recommend to Cabot to get ready in case those other projects are held up.

“This stuff is so soft, it would be hard to give a hard answer on it,” McKenzie said of the availability of federal funds this year for the Cabot overpass.