Tuesday, June 12, 2012

TOP STORY >> Tolls proposed for North Belt

Leader senior staff writer

The state Highway Commission on Tuesday rejected an expedited North Belt construction plan and instead proposed building the freeway as a partial toll road with financial help from the local community.

The rejected amendment — proposed by the Metroplan board last month — would have included $6 million in the 2013 fiscal year for purchase of critical right of way in the areas under the most intense development pressure. That’s in Sherwood.

It also called for the completion of right-of-way acquisition by 2019 for an estimated $36.3 million and for construction to be completed by 2025 at an estimated cost of $632.3 million.

With the help of state Highway Department director Scott Bennett, the Metroplan proposal was shoehorned on to the commission agenda. Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie drove overnight to Fayetteville to present and defend the proposal.

“The answer to the simple commitment to (our) funding time frame was ‘no,’” McKenzie said Tuesday afternoon. “They came back with a counter proposal that included tolling and funding partnerships with local jurisdictions.”

McKenzie said Bennett will send him a more specific proposal and he would get a letter out to the Metroplan members, perhaps in time to discuss it at the June 27 meeting.

McKenzie said a toll road feasibility study would need to be conducted before continuing down that road, and board members and cities affected might simply reject the notion out of hand.

The previous study, made several years ago, found construction of a toll road unfeasible, but this time around, tolling would just be a partial funding mechanism, with local partnerships and part of the $701 million committed to the project by 2030.

Bennett has noted that completion of the North Belt would probably require as much as half of the Highway Department’s road construction budget for all of Arkansas over a five-year period.

The conventional wisdom before the commission meeting was that approval would likely lead to construction of the 12.8-mile completion of the North Belt — the missing link in a bypass around Little Rock, North Little Rock and Sherwood, but that failure to approve the expedited plan was tantamount to driving a nail in the lid on the coffin of the project first committed to 60 years ago.

Some are suggesting that the toll idea was indeed that nail.“The commission made a good faith-effort to keep he project alive within the financial bind they find themselves in,” McKenzie said.

He said Metroplan’s last-minute addition to an already crowded agenda was given an ample hearing.

The section in question starts in the bean field at Hwy. 67/167, cuts through the northeast portion of Sherwood, on the edge of development, and across Camp Robinson, linking state Hwy. 440 at Hwy. 67/167 with I-40 and I-430 at Crystal Hill.

The loop, which would be approximately 60 miles, would include parts of I-430, I-30 and Hwy. 440, including the already completed first portion of the North Belt.

In the process it would lessen congestion on Hwy. 67/167, on I-40 and on I-30, including the Arkansas River bridge, and provide faster, safer transportation to jobs in Maumelle and west Little Rock for those commuting from the bedroom communities such as Cabot, Jacksonville and Sherwood.