Wednesday, March 08, 2006

TOP STORY >> Cabot tries to ease traffic congestion

Leader staff writer

Cabot residents who don’t want to battle Hwy. 89 traffic to get to the new Wal-Mart Supercenter will eventually have a direct route off Hwy. 5, courtesy up to this point of the Lonoke County Road Depart-ment.

The 1.4-mile road is the first step in a proposed long-range transportation plan to alleviate traffic congestion in Cabot. And it is an unusual step because a planning committee put together at the county level, not the city, has proposed it.

The new road, which is clearly visible from U.S. 67-167, is nearer completion than expected, thanks to a dry winter. The county has asked the city and businesses in the area, including Wal-Mart, to help pay for the road, but so far the entire cost of the estimated $750,000 project has been borne by the county.

The new Wal-Mart is scheduled to open this spring, and if the requested financial assistance comes through, the new road could be opened sometime in the summer.

Asked Tuesday why the county was taking the lead in trying to solve the city’s traffic problems, Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman said it was a matter of economics.

“I’m not criticizing anyone, but I wish we’d taken the lead 10 years ago,” Troutman said. “We have such a problem over there that it is going to effect the economic development of that whole area and that will affect my road department,” he said.
Several years ago, county residents passed a one-cent sales tax that is divided by population among the county and the cities in the county. The county gets 45 percent of the total, most of which goes to the road department, which last year collected $1.6 million from the tax.

Lonoke County JP Larry Odom is chairman of the long-range transportation committee, which includes two Cabot council members.

Odom, owner of Holland Bottom Farms on Highway 321, was instrumental in getting that road built more than 10 years ago.
He said recently that he knew the county and city are losing tax revenue because his own wife won’t fight the traffic in Cabot to get to Wal-Mart. She goes to Jacksonville instead.

Court cases and opinions by the state attorney general support the county judge’s authority over roads, including opening city streets without the permission or involvement of the city.

Troutman says frankly that a county judge’s authority over roads approaches that of a dictator, but doesn’t intend to get into a territory battle with Cabot.

He wants and believes he has the support of a majority of the council for some of the work he has proposed to do in Cabot, which is important since the city has money for roads at this time.

“If I can help some, I’m certainly going to do it,” Troutman said. “But I’m not going to get into a shooting match over jurisdiction.”

Cabot Mayor Stubby Stum-baugh, asked last week to support the long-range plan, which in-cludes almost 30 miles of new roads, refused. He told The Leader later that most of the roads were inside city limits and he had not seen the plan until it was completed.

An ordinance introduced before the Cabot City Council in February would provide the financial help the county has asked for on the road now under construction and also help with one-lane bridges on First Street that county, city and state officials say need to be replaced.

A state bridge inspector notified the city Feb. 7 that one of the bridges needs to be repaired within 12 months.
The center pier foot shows minor undermining and concrete underneath has crumbled, exposing the steel reinforcement. The city’s sports complex is on First Street.

The city had planned to re-place all seven of the bridges, at an estimated cost of $750,000.

Troutman has volunteered to do the work for $75,000 and has asked the city to use $400,000 of the estimated $675,000 savings to help with the road currently under construction and to improve and extend Willie Ray Drive on the other side of the freeway so residents on that side of the city would have quick access to the Austin interchange, which is used below capacity.

The ordinance sponsored by Aldermen Odis Waymack and Tom Armstrong would give Troutman permission to move ahead with the work as requested. It was read once during the February meeting, but did not have enough votes to pass.