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State: You pay for the North Belt Freeway

The Arkansas Highway Commission is in the process of drafting a letter to Metroplan of Central Arkansas telling the planning agency all parties wanting a North Belt Freeway built here need to come up with a way to pay for it.

On Tuesday, the commission met in Fayetteville and discussed the future of the North Belt, which originally was discussed in the 1940s but has never been built.

Commissioners instructed Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Director Scott Bennett to draft a letter to Metroplan to detail the state panel’s position.

AHTD Spokesman Randy Ort said there needs to be a consensus among state and local officials about how the freeway will be financed.

He anticipated that Metroplan should have the letter within a few days.

“The Highway Department cannot pay for it all,” Ort said.

There are many costs associated with the North Belt, even before the highway could start being constructed, he said.

State and local officials have estimated that $6 million needs to be set aside between years 2013-2016 for right of way acquisition with another $36 million budgeted for the same purpose during the period of 2016-2019, Ort said.

Additional charges include drafting the final design and survey, which would add another $16 million, according to Ort.

“We cannot come up with the whole $58 million,” Ort said, adding those are the costs associated with the highway before it would actually be built.

One possible way to help pay for the North Belt would be to make it a toll road, he said.

Ort said past studies determined that the North Belt was one of two state highway projects that at one time would have been feasible to make a toll road in order to pay for construction. One toll highway already built that charges toll fees is the Bella Vista roadway in Northwest Arkansas.

He said a study done in the late 1990s showed that toll fees would have provided 86 percent of the money necessary to build the North Belt then. Another study done about six years ago determined that tolls would provide 40 percent of the necessary money.

State and local officials need to come to a consensus if they would want tolls to be a part of the funding equation or to go another route, Ort said.

Metroplan Executive Director Jim McKenzie said tolls are one possibility that could be considered to help pay for the highway. Another option would be to seek federal revenues.

He said charging tolls would lead to fewer people using the roadway.

The Metroplan Board of Directors has voted to support the construction of the North Belt, McKenzie said.

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