Saturday, August 2, 2008

Boondoggling by the Beltway Bandits

There has been only brief news coverage of a major issue in Northwest Arkansas. On July 16th, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission put forth the idea of an $800,000 feasibility study for a massive by-pass of Fayetteville, Springdale, and Rogers, called The Western Beltway. It is projected to cost $400 million, and we all know how the politicians lowball us on public works projects then come back to raise our taxes for cost overruns. If you care, you're too late to do anything about it. Your chance to express your opinion about it expired last Monday, and the Northwest Arkansas Regional Transportation Policy Committee and the Technical Advisory Committee will hold a joint meeting on Thursday, August 7, at 10:30 am at the NWA Regional Planning Commission office to approve the feasibility study.

Physics Professor Art Hobson has a column in today's Northwest Arkansas Times, and he doesn't think much about this beltway idea, which he calls a bypass to bypass the bypass. "The wealthy, powerful and self-appointed Northwest Arkansas Council [sic], comprising the Waltons, Tysons, J. B. Hunts and other corporate interests, is pressing for quick Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission approval of a feasibility study of a new four-lane western beltway,” Dr. Hobson says, and he knows, as we all do, that "the project will become a done deal once the feasibility study is approved."

The trucking industry and the asphalt mentality dominate the discussion and the decision. We could start planning an efficient mass transit system for the same cost of the Big Slab Study, but that is not going to happen. As Professor Hobson points out, "The Northwest Arkansas Council has been reluctant to endorse the widely supported notion of light commuter rail. Light rail could solve transportation problems, save money, reverse sprawl, rejuvenate our cities’ centers, save lives, save oil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve everyone’s quality of life. Informal studies indicate that light rail is feasible, but the project is currently stopped for want of the roughly $750,000 needed to finance a full-fledged feasibility study. Rep. John Boozman could get these funds from federal transportation programs but has failed to do so. It’s clear to most observers that the council, fearing that the rail project would distract attention and money from its roads projects, has discouraged Boozman from seeking these funds."

How will Fayetteville businesses benefit from a bypass west of Farmington? Likewise, Springdale and Rogers commercial growth along I-540 will wither as the real estate developers rush to spread the sprawl west of Tontitown and Cave Springs. This Beltway is a job killer for existing retail and commercial businesses in the current economic corridor, and it is Dumb Growth at its worst.

Fayetteville is represented on the 44-member NWA Planning Commission by Mayor Coody's City Planner Jeremy Pate and Aldermen Brenda Thiel and Shirley Lucas. None of them are on the Executive Committee, and who knows whether they are on the Transportation Policy Committee and get to vote on Thursday. If so, it will be interesting to see how they vote and whether they have any influence.

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