Despite the time spent in past discussions of the North Belt Freeway, and the efforts now to "just keep it alive," Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert said he is ready to, "Just kill it."
The project has become a distraction, drawing attention from other, badly needed projects, he said.
Cypert made his remarks at the Aug. 1 meeting of the Metroplan board of directors.
At the meeting, the board voted to take measures to keep the project in the long-range plans and to spend up to $750,000 on a study of the feasibility of turning the proposed freeway into a toll road.
If the North Belt Freeway were built, then it would connect the interchange of Arkansas Highway 440 and U.S. Highway 67/167, between Jacksonville and Sherwood, with the Interstate 430/I-40 interchange near North Little Rock. It is the only uncompleted freeway segment of the interstate system surrounding the Little Rock/North Little Rock area.
Even though the North Belt has been included in regional plans, in some form since the 1940s, it has never been funded. Current estimates are that it would cost $600 million to build.
Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie warned that delays only would cause that estimate increase.
Although other freeways in central Arkansas area have been built, reconstructed and then widened since the North Belt was originally proposed, the only part of North Belt that has been built is the section connecting U.S. 67/167 with I-40 to the east.
During the Aug. 1 meeting, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines made the motion to preserve the corridor and rights of way for the North Belt. Doing so would help maintain progress, however little, he said.
Villines compared it to "baby steps." The only other option "would be to take it off life support and kill it," he said.
Cypert said it could be time simply to end the project.
"I represent a city that according to the 2010 census has 24,000 people and we have, roughly, 65,000 within a 10-mile trade area, which includes Austin and Ward, who are members of Metroplan," Cypert said.
Studies indicate that only 5 percent of the people in the Cabot area are likely to use the North Belt Freeway, and projections to 2030 indicate that figure would grow to only 17 percent, he said.
"My concern with all this, with this continued discussions, continued baby steps or whatever you want to call it, Cabot, Arkansas, like many other areas has grown dramatically. We have two exits … [at times] exit 16 is over capacity; it’s a nightmare. … Exit 19 is at capacity at peak periods," Cypert said. "We need a third interchange … We have urgent short-term and critical infrastructure traffic capacity needs that need to be addressed. But here we are just talking about keeping something alive; this to just keep talking and that’s about it."
He said he is considering a motion to end the North Belt Freeway, "Just kill it. … I’m not ready to make a motion today, but I am close."
Cypert added that he supports the study into tolling as an option worthy of study.
"But my main concern with this board of directors … is [Cabot residents] have urgent needs that are not being fulfilled in the short or intermediate term, yet we keep talking about this project may or may never get built," he said.
In other matters, it appears that years of struggling to meet federal air quality standards have come to an end and central Arkansas faces the restraints that follow non-attainment of ozone standards. McKenzie told the board of directors that the fourth highest ozone reading of this summer appears to put central Arkansas in non-attainment.
Although the data are preliminary and must await the end of the ozone season and quality control work from the Department of Environmental Quality, it seems to be a foregone conclusion, he said.
Should non-attainment be confirmed, Gov. Mike Beebe would have to make the declaration by the end of the year with confirmation by the Environmental Protection Agency in spring of 2013.
"We have planned to include a conformity analysis as part of our long-range plan update currently under way," McKenzie said.
According to information from EPA, under the federal Clean Air Act, the analysis would consider the effect of federally funded transportation improvement projects on clean air standards. CAA requires federal agencies that "engage in, support in any way or provide financial assistance for, license or permit, or approve any activity" must show that the assistance does not interfere with state and local plans to bring an area into attainment of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
That would include transportation projects that are supported by federal funds.