Tuesday, June 26, 2012

TOP STORY >> North Belt looks to sales tax, tolls

Leader senior staff writer

The state Highway Department wants the Metroplan board to support a regional transportation authority that would push for local sales taxes to support the North Belt Freeway.

Tolls would also help pay for the $600 million freeway.

Formation of such an authority has been on the Metroplan radar for several years.

The highway department also wants the board to approve a resolution in support of the proposed temporary 1/2-cent state sales tax, estimated to raise $1.8 billion for roads and highways over its 10-year life. Proposed by the state General Assembly, it will be before voters in the November election.

Metroplan staff analysis finds that about 31 percent of the new 1/2 cent tax money is to be spent in Pulaski, Saline, Faulkner and Lonoke counties, which has about 23 percent of the state’s population. Central Arkansas officials have long groused that the region contributes more taxes to the state than it gets back in revenues.

The Metroplan board is to consider the highway commission proposal at today’s monthly meeting, and its staff will prepare resolutions as directed by the board for action at the July board meeting.


The highway commission’s offer includes $6 million for right of way after design survey and other project development activities, with purchase as early as 2016.

Under development pressure by Sherwood developers, Metroplan had sought that right of way money by 2013. A judge ordered the city to allow the developers to begin building in that right of way if the state isn’t buying the right of way.

Currently, the land is mostly undeveloped. Once there are expensive home on it, the price is likely to skyrocket.

Other parts of the state’s proposal to finish the North Belt:

The highway department wants the Metroplan board to commit to half of the funding for project development and the remainder of the right of way costs.

That would require $6 million to be provided in the local 2013-2016 Surface Transportation Improvement Project period, and $18 million in the 2016-2019 STIP.

The department wants the Metroplan board to pass a resolution supporting the “tolling” of the North Belt and to partner in funding a $500,000 toll feasibility study and a $1.5 million “investment grade” toll feasibility study, including hiring an adviser, bond council and financial adviser.

The department further wants the board to agree to partner with the department to cover any shortfall between construction costs and toll revenues, perhaps by committing existing and special turnback funds.

Metroplan director Jim McKenzie has estimated this commitment could total approximately $205 million, about one-third of the projected $632 million construction cost.


McKenzie notes that there are several policy issues Metroplan board members need to consider when evaluating the department proposal.

First, since Metroplan’s long-range transportation plan has spending limits and the highway commission has said the freeway will not be constructed within the plan-period with federal aid and state match, then it must be removed from the long-range transportation plan if there’s not enough funding.

Consequently, federal funds cannot be used on any aspect of the North Belt until it is reinstated with an adequate funding plan.

No local government has ever been asked to partner in the construction of an interstate, according to McKenzie. He called it unprecedented and said it seemed to apply only to the North Belt but not to other unbuilt but long planned interstates such as I-49 and I-69.

The scale of the investment would overwhelm federal transportation funds for the regional arterial network, the Arkansas River Trail and intra-regional bikeway connectors and rail transit.

Neither Metroplan nor a regional planning authority could commit funds to the project that are controlled by the jurisdictions it comprises. Rather, each local legislative body would have to make that choice.


As the highway commission sees it, Metroplan made commissioners an offer they had to refuse so that blame for scuttling North Belt could be pinned on highway officials.

That’s according to a letter this month from highway director Scott Bennett to other members of the Metroplan board, upon which he also sits.

Metroplan had asked the commission to commit $6 million later this year to buy those parts of North Belt right of way under immediate development pressure in Sherwood, another $36.3 million for right of way acquisition by 2019 and to agree to complete the decades-in-the-making $632 million freeway by 2025 instead of 2030.

“The proposal you have made appears to have been structured so that the only reasonable answer could be “no,” and the blame for not continuing with the development of the corridor could squarely be laid on the commission and the department,” Bennett wrote.

“We expect — and we believe we deserve — better cooperation from the area on this project.”

“The region must step up to the plate and join the game,” said Bennett, a former Razorback baseball player.


In Bennett’s letter, the commission made a counterproposal that included paying for it by making it a toll road and shifting much of the other funding responsibility to Metroplan and the central Arkansas cities, towns and counties that comprise it its membership.

The commission’s proposal would also require the Metroplan board members to form a regional mobility authority with some taxing authority of its own.

“If the North Belt freeway is to move forward, the finger-pointing must stop and the central Arkansas region must work together with the commission and the department,” Bennett wrote to the Metroplan board June 15.

The commission’s counter proposal not only would make the North Belt the state’s first toll road, but it would require formation a regional taxing authority and for central Arkansas governments and Metroplan to commit to paying about $206 million of the cost.


While Metroplan has been calling the North Belt construction a “committed project,” Bennett said there was never enough money committed to build the entire thing.

The 1991 Highway Improvement Act included $50 million which was never adequate to fund the entire corridor, he said, further noting that $70 million was spent building just the east half of the project.

When Gov. Jim Guy Tucker proposed $136 million to complete the North Belt in 1995, according to Bennett, it was the Metroplan that delayed the project because it would “encourage sprawl.”

Bennett cites several other delays — in 1997 Metroplan didn’t approve moving forward because the proposed route was not consistent with the Sherwood master street plan — and concludes: “any blame for the North Belt Freeway not being completed to date simply cannot rest solely on the commission and the department.”

McKenzie says that on short notice, the commission gave a serious ear to the Metroplan request and calls the counter offer “a good-faith effort.”