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North Belt plans change again

Construction of the North Belt Freeway from U.S. Highway 67/167 to Interstate 40 could require novel approaches to funding, Jim McKenzie, Metroplan executive director, told the group’s board of directors at the June 27 meeting.

The response of the Arkansas Highway Commission to the board’s request to begin purchase of right-of-way for freeway was, “No,” McKenzie said.

He was referring to the board decision at the May 23 meeting to revive efforts to complete the belt Interstate, connecting U.S. Highway 67/167 at Sherwood to Interstate 40.

The request was to re-designate $6 million from the U.S. Highway 64 improvement project to fund the right-of-way purchase and for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to change the construction schedule for the freeway.

McKenzie said he had been at the June 12 Arkansas Highway Commission meeting at which the project was the subject of “significant discussion.”

“The short answer to the request is, ‘No. There is not enough money,’ ” McKenzie said. The primary reason for the negative answer was because the North Belt Freeway is not a committed project.

The first action Metroplan needs to do is remove the freeway from the “Financially Constrained Plan,” he said, meaning there are no funds designated for the project.

However, McKenzie said, the AHC has made a “good faith” counteroffer.

“The Commission would provide $6 million for [North Belt Freeway right-of-way] after design, survey and other project development activities take place,” he said. The cost for the survey work is estimated at $15 million.

Because the survey work would have to be completed beforehand, the earliest the right-of-way could be purchased would be early 2016, McKenzie said.

The Metroplan board had requested the right-of-way purchase by 2013.

The Highway Commission proposal also would have Metroplan commit to 50 percent of the funding for project development along with the remaining right-of-way costs. The commission would require $8 million in the 2013-2016 State Transportation Improvement Plan and $18 million in the 2016-2019 STIP, McKenzie said

Another part of the commission proposal is for the board to approve a resolution supporting adding tolls to the North Belt Freeway, he said. This would mean becoming a partner in paying for the initial toll feasibility study.

The total cost for the toll study is estimated at $500,000, and Metroplan’s portion would be $250,000.

If results of the study are favorable to placing tolls on the North Belt, then an investment grade study would be needed, along with hiring a toll facility adviser, bond counsel and financial adviser, McKenzie said.

That total cost is estimated at $1.5 million, with Metroplan’s share at $750,000.

The proposal also asks the Metroplan board to adopt a resolution supporting partnership with AHTD to cover construction costs not met by toll revenue, he said.

“That amount is unknown because they do not know what the toll revenue would be,” McKenzie said. Neither is the proposal specific in the percent that Metroplan would be liable for.

“We assume 50 percent,” and the figure could be as high as $135 million, he said.

A suggested means of meeting that cost is for Metroplan members to form a regional mobility authority and levy a local sales tax to generate the revenue, McKenzie said.

He said a set of proposed resolutions would be prepared for consideration at the next board of directors meeting.

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