Monday, July 21, 2008

Regional Railroading

The Benton County Daily Record is taking the lead in "educating" the public about the coming battles to be fought over our transportation infrastructure, and its news staff appears to be ignoring citizen opinion and accepting and advancing the plans of the Northwest Arkansas Council of Corporations and Wealthy Business Executives. Newspapers do that far too often.

"Three years ago, members of the public attended input sessions to determine how they wanted their transportation tax dollars spent on the Northwest Arkansas 2030 Long-Range Transportation Plan," writes Eleanor Evans. "Commuter rail transit seemed to be a popular idea, as did improvents to Interstate 540 and the development of a regional arterial network." She then goes on to transcribe the continuing opposition to light rail from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, which discounts any mass transit system because of the experience with the unsuccessful and underfunded bus system operated by Ozark Regional Transit. She quotes no advocate of alternative transportation nor members of the public, basing the story entirely on uncontested assertions by Jeff Hawkins, director of NWARPC, and Phil Pumphrey, director of ORT.

Even more revealing is the companion story by Randy Moll about the recent pitch to the Gentry City Council by Mike Malone, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Council of Corporations and Wealthy Business Executives, and Scott VanLaningham, purported to be "vice president of the Regional Mobility Authority." This is telling, because the proposed Regional Mobility Authority, composed only of mayors and county judges, has not ever met to elect officers. At least not in public.

According to Moll's account, and he is usually accurate, VanLaningham made no mention of mass transit and said the Regional Mobility Authority was formed to help fund highway construction in Benton and Washington counties. Then, reported Moll, he declared that the highway projects which the RMA hopes to move forward are the Bella Vista bypass, which has a current $139 million funding shortfall; the Springdale northern bypass, which is estimated to cost $300 million, but is not fully funded through 2030; improvements to Interstate 540, with identified improvement needs of $380 million, but not fully funded through 2030; and a western beltway. Not a nickel for public transportation, according to "RMA Vice President" VanLaningham.

The Gentry City Council will consider whether to join at its August meeting in a couple of weeks. Be looking for another editorial from the Northwest Arkansas Times insisting that they should have taken action immediately after VanLaningham's initial sales pitch and berating them for taking the time to listen to the views of their constituents who would be paying the taxes to support this billion dollar construction bonanza.

What we need is a sensible transportation plan that integrates traditional highways, mass transit, bike lanes, trails, and other means of mobility that will serve all of our citizens, not just the truckers, contractors, and corporate interests. Let your mayor and county judge know what you think.

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