Friday, June 01, 2012

EDITORIAL >> North Belt is still alive

Here’s a scoop from our own John Hofheimer: The Arkansas Highway Commission will soon decide the future of the long-delayed North Belt Freeway project now that Metroplan’s board of directors has decided that the final phase of the highway should be completed.

Jim McKenzie, Metroplan’s executive director, will urge the highway commission to make the project a priority. The delays have been a personal embarrassment to McKenzie, who had hoped to see completion of the 12.8-mile project many years ago.

Delays have increased costs almost tenfold, from about $60 million if the road had been built 20 years ago to $700 million if it were built in the next five years. Talk about inflation: The 12.8-mile route connecting Hwy. 67/167 in Jacksonville to I-40 at Crystal Hill in North Little Rock could cost as much as $55 million a mile. The first leg of North Belt cost about $10 million a mile.

Every year there’s a delay, the highway’s cost goes up some $43 million.

On June 12, McKenzie wants the highway commission to approve $6 million for rights of way in 2013; $36 million in 2014-2019, and $632 million for construction in 2020-2025.

Six million dollars will be pulled from work on a state Hwy. 64 Vilonia bypass if the commission approves the new North Belt Freeway plan and timetable championed by Metroplan, but that money can be replaced if the half-cent a gallon fuel tax increase is approved in November.

Otherwise, the only local changes proposed in Metroplan’s 2030 long-range transportation plan — being put out for public comment —appear positive.

The plan would include $6.8 million for an I-40-Hwy. 89 interchange on the west side of Lonoke, with bids being let sometime after October, according to Metroplan assistant director Richard Magee. That would include a $3.8 million congressional earmark, $1 million in local match, $1.6 million in National Highway System funds, $400,000 in state funds and $228,000 in Surface Transportation Program funds.

Widening Hwy. 67/167 from Jacksonville toward Cabot is funded to the tune of $18 million between 2014 and 2019.

Also in that same time frame, the plan includes $21.7 million to improve the I-30/I-40 north interchange toward Sherwood, Jacksonville and Cabot.

Still in the plan is $27 million to widen Hwy. 67/167 between Redmond Road and Vandenberg Boulevard, with the first $13 million portion let to bids after October, and the balance as early as the next year. The jobs will include widening highway overpasses and approaches at Redmond Road and also at Main Street.

Modifications to the Hwy. 67/167-Hwy. 5 interchange at Cabot, estimated at $14.8 million, is slated to go to bid sometime between 2014 and 2019.

The $10 million bid to widen Graham Road in Jacksonville from East Center Street to JP Wright Loop Road has been let and work is under way.

The $1.9 million cable median barrier from Vandenberg to Hwy. 89 in Cabot is also under way. The $11.5 million widening of Hwy. 107 from Bayou Meto to north of Arnold Drive is also going to bid after October.

There are a lot of road projects in the air, and our transportation writers will keep you posted. Drive safe.