September 19, 2007 Edition

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Hwy. 67 Coalition meets in WR


Missouri Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson (from left) and Arkansas Congressman Marion Berry visit with Arkansas Highway Commissioner John Reginold after a Highway 67 Coalition Meeting on Thursday at Williams Baptist College.
TD Photo ~ Gretchen Hunt
Gretchen Hunt
Editor

When Lawrence County Chamber Board members looked at goals, objectives and priorities earlier this year, one thing that was emphasized was the need to see continued highway improvements in the area.

One of the most anticipated highway projects is upgrading Highway 67 to connect the highway to Missouri.

On Thursday, the Chamber helped host a Highway 67 Coalition meeting at Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, and as Clay Sloan, chairman of the Chamber Board, welcomed those in attendance he said, "Let's get this highway built now."

His sentiment was echoed throughout the meeting as officials from both Arkansas and Missouri spoke about the current status and future plans for the project.

Among those in attendance were Missouri Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson and Arkansas Congressman Marion Berry. Both emphasized the importance of continued improvements, as well as the challenges of limited funds to do the needed work.

Group effort can get the job done

Former State Rep. Don House, a member of the Arkansas Good Roads Transportation Council, said there are about 50 miles of Highway 67 between Walnut Ridge and the Missouri border that need to be completed. He said the highway, which is a major north-south corridor, has become choked and needs attention from both states and the U.S. Congress.

"With all of us pushing together in the same direction at the same time we can get it done," House said.

Highway 67 Coalition President Tom Lawson said Thursday's meeting and the support shown by Berry and Emerson were a perfect example of that kind of teamwork. He pointed out that the two are from different states and different parties but are still working together to see the area improve.

"They're friends," he said of the two. "That helps. We're depending on them to lift us up."

Lawson said revitalization of what was once a main thoroughfare will help the area's economy, as well as improving safety.

Dan Flowers, director of the Arkansas Highway Department, said Highway 67 continues to be a priority, but limited funds make all projects slow going.

"I can assure you that the Arkansas Highway Department will continue to work to try to get future interstate designation for Highway 67," he said. "Many millions of dollars have been committed to the development of Highway 67."

The highway was completed to Newport in 1994. The stretch north from Newport to Highway 226 (near Swifton) is all either complete or under construction, according to Flowers.

Next year, phase one of the stretch north to the Hoxie-Walnut Ridge bypass will begin. Flowers said this includes buying the right of way and doing clearing for the highway.

"Then every part of the highway up to Walnut Ridge and Hoxie will at least be started," he told attendees.

He said north of Walnut Ridge, environmental studies are being completed to determine the best path for the highway to connect up with Corning, but no timeline has been set for construction on that stretch.

"We know the importance of it to all of you and the importance of it to the states of Arkansas and Missouri," Flowers said.

Lack of funds slows efforts

Lack of funds is crippling efforts, though, according to Flowers. Approximately $400-500 million is needed to complete work north from Walnut Ridge. Flowers showed that revenues received by the Highway Department for road construction have been pretty static since 1977.

The department receives designated funds through a fuel tax, but the revenue has not increased much over the past 30 years, while costs have multiplied greatly.

The tax is 21.7 cents on gasoline, 22.7 cents on diesel and 16.5 cents on LP gas. The highway department also receives revenue from vehicle registrations.

"Gas consumption is not increasing," he said. "We have had a loss of buying power as costs have increased."

How highways are funded is a matter of constitutional law in Arkansas, and any changes or additional funding would have to come through the legislature or a vote of the people.

The department has approximately $267 million in state funds to use for highway projects throughout the state. There are also federal funds that states can compete for, but they generally require an 80-20 match.

Berry said he and Emerson are both on the appropriations committee, but there are not a lot of funds available there either.

"You would know that I'd get on the appropriations committee when the country is broke," he said.

While all highways have to be maintained, Flowers said a primary highway network has been established that includes half of the states' highways, which carry 92 percent of the traffic in Arkansas.

"We'll concentrate our focus there in the future," Flowers said. "Highway 67, Highway 63 and Highway 412 all are part of the primary highway network."

John Regenold, highway commissioner for Lawrence County, said each of the five commissioners basically has $52 million that can be dedicated to construction, and each of those commissioners has two districts that they serve.

State Sen. Robert Thompson of Paragould said the funding process is not all negative.

"The good thing about special revenue is they don't have to fight with other agencies for the money," he said. "The bad thing is it is not as reliable as general revenue."

Lawson said with the limitations of funding the highway departments face, completing the project may take work and contributions from local entities. In Poplar Bluff, residents voted to contribute $60,000,000 to four-laning the highway from Fredricktown to Poplar Bluff.

State Rep. J.R. Rogers of Walnut Ridge said finding a way to fund the project is imperative.

"I don't think there is anything we can do that will help this area more than four-laning Highway 67," he said.

Let voices be heard

"There is already conversation about how to fund highway construction," Thompson said. "Follow the conversation. There will be opposition to sources of funding for highways. Let your voices be heard."

Berry in tongue-in-cheek fashion told meeting attendees, "You've all heard about the money that's all it takes."

He said the current funding process was set up to keep the highway commission constitutionally separate. Because they do not receive general revenues, they are not controlled by the governor or the legislature.

Berry said finding additional funding is a priority right now.

"All you have to do is have one bridge collapse over the Mississippi River and people start to take notice," he said. "There is a lot of talk inside the beltway about how to raise more money for bridges and highway infrastructure.

"It might require taxes on something. We would like to do it without a tax, but that is probably the direction we are heading."

Lawson said the coalition continues to pursue the development of the highway because they recognize the link between transportation improvements and economic development.

Emerson shared a specific example of Highway 60, which connects Springfield and Sikeston in Missouri. The upgrading of that highway has caused increased traffic counts and more businesses along the highway.

"If we build it, they will come," she said. "We will continue to work to make sure that this dream becomes a reality."

"I think we are all on the same page, and I think we are going to get it done," Berry said. "I just hope I live long enough to ride on some of these roads. We have a wonderful country, and we've got a wonderful part of the country to live in. If we put good roads into Southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas, the area will prosper."

Johnnie Bolin, executive director of the Arkansas Good Roads Transportation Council, said he wonders who will be the next Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower began the interstate highway program, and Bolin said that kind of vision is what is needed now.

"We have a lot of problems, but I don't consider them problems, I consider them opportunities," he said. "We need a new highway program. Let's get Highways 67 and 412 four-laned and bust this economy wide open."

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