Friday, August 03, 2012

TOP STORY >> North Belt still real possibility, Metroplan says

Leader senior staff writer

The Metroplan board Wednesday took what one board member called “baby steps” toward the completion of the North Belt Freeway.

But taking any steps at all is progress, according to Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie.

The board agreed to remove construction of the $700 million freeway from the financially constrained long-range transportation plan. The state Highway Commission has said it doesn’t have the money to build it. In its place on the constrained list, the directors put engineering and right of way acquisition for the North Belt.

Meanwhile, Metroplan will contribute $250,000 toward a professional feasibility study of making the freeway a toll road. Toll revenues could be used to secure construction bonds.

“It was just sitting there, on the plan, with nobody doing anything and developers starting to build in the right of way,” McKenzie said Friday afternoon. Now the Highway Commission is looking for money to do additional engineering, to put $6 million into the protection of critical right of way and to do the toll study.

“Now it’s not just sitting there,” he said.

McKenzie said that the Highway Department and Metroplan seem to be pulling in tandem to find a way to do the project.

By removing actual North Belt construction from the constrained plan, there was more than $100 million to put toward other projects, including $15 million for the widening of Hwy. 67/167 from Jacksonville to Cabot and $67 million to continue widening on I-40.

The board approved an amendment to the 2030 long-range transportation plan to include those projects.

One thing that has changed is that the central Arkansas business community got energized about the project.

The two central Arkansas highway commissioners had been “supportive, but not engaged,” McKenzie said. Now they are engaged.

“We’ve got some movement. It may take another 50 years to get the road built (not an actual estimate) but if we don’t protect the right of way, it can’t be built.”

He said that in 30 or 40 years, when the population of central Arkansas is one million, people are going to wonder why the right of way wasn’t protected.

Sherwood has been ordered by a court to change its master street plan to allow developers to build on land that had been reserved — but not purchased — for the North Belt.

Mayor Virginia Hillman noted Thursday, “We’re beating a dead horse a little bit. If there’s no funding, there’s no commitment.”