Tuesday, February 02, 2016

EDITORIAL >> North Belt Alternative

Area mayors have the support of Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) for an alternate route to replace the North Belt Loop, the now-abandoned plan to build a freeway from the Jacksonville bean fields to I-40 at Crystal Hill Road.

The mayors’ group, which calls itself the Highway Corridor Coalition, met Friday in Jacksonville to push Hill for an alternate route on Hwy. 89 from Cabot to Mayflower. Jacksonville officials have also pushed to include Coffelt Road in the highway extension, although it’s uncertain when funding will become available for the project.

The coalition includes Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert, Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher and Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland.

Going west from Cabot, Hwy. 89 is a state highway to Hwy. 107. Upon crossing that highway, it becomes an arterial county road, following Tates Mill Road, Batesville Pike and Sayles Road to another segment of Hwy. 89, running to and beyond I-40.

The proposed corridor is a good idea, but not the same thing as completing the North Belt, not by a long mile. The Hwy. 89 extension should have come in addition to the North Belt, but don’t be surprised if the latest proposal will take a generation or longer to realize.

“The North Belt was a good idea when Lyndon Johnson was president,” Hill said, but now it’s time to find an alternative.

Hill said the North Belt was in the 1991 highway plan, but it was always a second priority.

What Hill should ask himself is why an idea proposed 50 years ago took 25 years to develop and then was abandoned 25 years later. We’re tired of politics as usual. Let’s hope he is, too.

Central Arkansas residents were promised the North Belt Loop would be completed with a nickel increase in the gasoline tax in 1991. The politicians got their tax increase, and we’re still detouring to I-40.

Not too many legislators are still around who pushed through the gasoline tax back when Bill Clinton was governor. Former Reps. Mike Wilson of Jacksonville and Doug Wood of Sherwood, along with former House Speaker and Sen. John Paul Capps of Searcy will tell you people here deserved their freeway, but who do you complain to now?

The late, great Rep. William F. (Bill) Foster, the sage of England, put his integrity on the line and insisted the North Belt would be completed. But he passed away before plans were even submitted. Delays kept increasing the cost from about $120 million to more than $600 million.

It would take a steep gasoline tax hike to fund that 12-mile project, and that won’t happen. So, by all means, improve Hwy. 89 and Coffelt Road, but don’t call it the North Belt. And good luck finding $300 million or so for a 26-mile widening of Hwy. 89 anytime soon.

Can it be built in the next decade or so? Only if local mayors pressure our representatives, and not just Rep. Hill, but also Rep. Rick Crawford, the First District congressmen and others, for badly needed highway improvements.

We shouldn’t have to wait 50 more years.