Friday, August 10, 2012

EDITORIAL >> North Belt’s last chance

Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie was hoping the completion of the North Belt Loop would turn out to be his legacy. It’s a longshot that it will ever get built as costs have risen astronomically. But a toll road being considered in place of the freeway might be the way to complete the much-delayed highway.

The projected cost is now at $650 million and still rising, well above the $120 million estimate of a decade ago. Only five years ago we reported the second phase of the 12-mile freeway would cost $200 million, or about $18 million a mile compared with the latest estimate of $55 million a mile.

Talk about sticker shock. The first phase was about 11 miles long and cost less than $10 million a mile. It looks like a bargain now. But do bureaucrats ever finish a major highway on time? If they can waste several hundred million dollars on a project by delaying it a decade or longer, you know they will choose that option.

The next planned phase through Jacksonville’s bean fields and Sherwood has stalled for a decade because funding wasn’t secured for construction and right of ways to finish the project at Crystal Hill Road at I-40 in North Little Rock.

McKenzie knows that Metroplan should have pushed for completion of the freeway a long time ago. Lack of unity on the Metroplan board, which includes several area mayors, and the state Highway Department’s failure to allocate funds during the prosperous Clinton years have apparently doomed the project — but not quite.

The state Highway Commission will spend $6 million to acquire right of ways, which won’t be easy as the Sherwood City Council recently approved plans for a subdivision in the path of the freeway. The commission has also approved $250,000 to study the feasibility of a toll road along with a bond issue to finish the North Belt. That’s not a good option, but it may be the only way to get it done.

McKenzie and the Metroplan board blew it when they didn’t make the second leg of the North Belt their top priority back in the 1990s, when the gasoline tax was raised and we were promised the road would be finished before the new millennium. Officials break promises all the time, but overcharging motorists at least $500 million for the North Belt is a new low — or a new high. There will be no reason to celebrate even if the highway is completed in the next decade.