April 30, 2008 EditionAlso in this issue...
upgrading current Hwy. 67
Don House (from left), member of the Arkansas Good Roads Council, talks about a new proposal for Highway 67, north to Missouri, with Lawrence County Judge Alex Latham, Greene County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wayne Gearhart, Pocahontas Mayor Gary Crocker and Randolph County Judge David Jansen.
TD Photo ~ Gretchen Hunt
With tighter budgets and the increasing cost of highway development, officials in Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties are recommending a redeveloped Highway 67 from Walnut Ridge to the Missouri line.
The current plan is for the highway to be rebuilt northward as an interstate, which could still happen, but would be many years in the future.
Local leaders say redeveloping the current highway path north through Pocahontas and Corning and on to Missouri is more feasible in the current economic climate.
The highway would be upgraded to five lanes similar to Highway 63 from Jonesboro to Walnut Ridge.
Don House of Walnut Ridge, a member of the Arkansas Good Roads Council, met with area leaders on Thursday afternoon in Walnut Ridge.
"The majority of the leaders within the three counties have already signed on for a redeveloped Highway 67," he said.
Randolph County Chamber Executive Director Wayne Gearhart said as far as local leaders go they are ready to move forward with this plan.
"There are not any dissenters on this," he said. "We're all in this together."
Because the interstate highway is expected to take a different route than the current highway, this project does not necessarily interfere with those plans, but it does provide a solution that can help the area in a much more timely fashion, according to House.
"This is something that could be done in the next 10 to 15 years instead of 40," he said.
He said the upgrades would make it a "super rural highway," which would provide an easy route for travelers along the Chicago to Dallas corridor.
"There would not be as much big truck traffic as an interstate," House said. "But that is not the traffic we are looking for. It whizzes by at 65 miles per hour. We welcome any traffic, but our top priority is developing traffic that will stop in our communities, whether it is Datto, Corning, Pocahontas or Walnut Ridge."
House said now is the time to act because the diverting of this much-needed traffic to Interstate 55 has put a major stranglehold on communities along Highway 67.
"I personally don't believe that these communities can withstand another 25 years of no business development," he said.
Another issue is a proposed intermodal facility, or super site, for industrial recruitment, at the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport.
"If we're talking about an intermodal facility, we need this development right now," House said.
Officials in Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties are working together to develop the facility, which means a good road system connecting those counties is a must.
"This happening almost simultaneously is a good thing," Lawrence County Judge Alex Latham said.
House said the development will help with industrial and business development.
"I predict that one of these days there will be continuous businesses up and down the highway between Walnut Ridge and Pocahontas," he said.
He pointed out that upgrading the highway will not only provide a larger customer base for potential businesses, but will also make the communities more accessible to each other.
"Walnut Ridge/Hoxie are already 'closer' to Pocahontas because of highway improvements," House said.
House said that Missouri has committed to be within 10 miles of the Missouri state line by 2012. Part of the reason for their success in completing their part of the highway was that they chose to simply upgrade some stretches as is now being considered in Arkansas.
The completion of the upgrades in the two states will bring an incredible influx of traffic, according to Gearhart.
"It's hard to imagine how much more traffic we'll have," he said.
House agreed saying, "67 is still the major north-south corridor, it just diverts to 55 right now."
House said the proposal has been submitted to the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department and feedback has been positive thus far.
A major benefit to the proposal is that it will be much less expensive to redevelop the current highway than to complete the interstate highway system. Engineers have created a cost estimate at $270 million, which includes 22 bridges.
To go north from Pocahontas to the state line with an interstate-grade highway would cost $550 million, according to Pocahontas Mayor Gary Crocker.
"If they backtrack and do interstate standards from Walnut Ridge to the state line it would cost $1 billion," he said.
"So, going with redevelopment from Pocahontas northward will be 25 cents or less on the dollar."
While the Highway Department takes the matter under advisement, local leaders are continuing to have informational meetings within their communities and with neighboring community leaders. They are currently gathering resolutions of support for an upgraded Highway 67.
A new severance tax that is part of Gov. Mike Beebe's highway plan could be a boost to the idea of an upgraded highway, as well.
"Our state legislators from this region supported Gov. Beebe's highway plan on the severance tax, which will be used statewide," House said.
Gearhart said that 70 percent of the severance tax will be used for state highways, which a redeveloped 67 would remain.
"We've been told the proceeds from the tax will be considerably higher than what was originally predicted," he added.
For now, local leaders are hoping the Highway Commission will agree that the upgrade is a worthy project.
"This is the right thing to do," Gearhart said.
Crocker agreed saying, "It's our best bet to get something done now."
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