August 29, 2012 Edition

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Intermodal Authority
discusses Hwy. 67 route

Dalton Sullivan
Pocahontas Star Herald

In a compromise move, the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority (NEARIFA) passed a motion at its regular monthly meeting this past week endorsing the completion of Hwy. 67 North from Walnut Ridge to the Missouri state line, but stopped short of endorsing a route.

Earlier this month the cities of Corning, Walnut Ridge and Hoxie, as well as Lawrence County passed resolutions endorsing a study of Hwy. 67, entitled "Close the Gap," a four-lane project from the Missouri state line to Walnut Ridge.

The study, which was done by a Poplar Bluff engineering firm, proposed Hwy. 67 be upgraded to a four-lane expressway, and roughly follow the Union Pacific railway north out of Walnut Ridge to Corning, only catching a small portion of extreme southeastern Randolph County, primarily running through Greene County before entering Clay County south of Corning.

Because the proposed route bypassed Pocahontas, the Randolph County Quorum Court earlier this month failed to pass the resolution, in fact did not even bring it up for a vote. Corning Mayor Dewayne Phelan was hoping all of the communities would pass the resolution because the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) will be holding a meeting in Jonesboro on Sept. 11. Phelan is on the agenda for that meeting and planned to present the "Close the Gap" plan at that meeting. AHTD is also planning on holding public meetings regarding Hwy. 67 on Sept. 26 at BRTC in Pocahontas and Sept. 27 in Corning.

At Thursday's NEARIFA meeting, Executive Director Wayne Gearhart told the board members Phelan wanted the NEARIFA to endorse the proposed plan. Phelan admitted to the board that Randolph County Judge David Jansen and Pocahontas Mayor Frank Bigger were not satisfied with the route.

Phelan presented an alternative route for consideration whereby Hwy. 67 stayed on the same path toward Pocahontas, and then just south of Pocahontas, made a right turn towards Delaplaine in Greene County, and then up towards Corning.

Phelan said the original cost was $186 million for the original plan, and $160 million for the secondary plan. But he added he had met with Corps of Engineer officials and they said they would not issue any construction permits in flood plains, which Phelan claimed parts of Hwy. 67 and Hwy. 304 were in, a fact Jansen disputed.

Jansen dismissed Phelan's second-route proposal, saying it wasn't feasible.

"This is just a crumb you're throwing Randolph County," Jansen said. "You know and I know AHTD is not going to improve Hwy. 304." Jansen went on to say, "I don't even know why Intermodal is involved in this, they need to work on economic development. This is a concern for the Hwy. 67 Coalition."

Jansen later wondered why AHTD would want to build a highway that completely bypasses not only the largest community in the three counties, but also the only one that has actually sustained growth over the last 30 years. "It makes no sense," Jansen said.

Gearhart responded to Jansen saying the NEARIFA is on record as supporting Hwy. 67 North over the existing route. "The NEARIFA represents seven entities," Gearhart said. "We all agree something needs to happen."

NEARIFA Board Treasurer Milton Smith said, "We need to support the expansion of the highway, but we know AHTD will put the highway wherever they want."

Board Chairman Scott Trammell offered an olive branch, suggesting the board pass a resolution supporting expansion of Hwy 67, but not endorsing a specific route.

Following Trammell's suggestion, Jansen was again adamant about the route. "This will kill Pocahontas and Randolph County," Jansen said, "I'm passionate about this. Folks driving on the highway are not going to drive from Delaplaine to Pocahontas to go to McDonald's or Burger King just to get something to eat."

Jansen then made sure everyone understood his position had nothing to do with the NEARIFA.

"I'm not against the NEARIFA," Jansen said. "I am convinced it is our best hope for economic development."

Gearhart seconded that saying, "That is a good point, we need to keep the coalition together."

The board then unanimously approved Trammell's suggestion, passing the motion that simply stated, "We support expedited completion of Hwy. 67 to the Missouri state line for the purpose of economic development."

Both Phelan and Jansen said they were happy with the wording and could live with it.

In other business, Jerry Kelso of the NEARIFA Engineering Firm of Crafton Tull reported the Authority was unsuccessful in its application for a Rural Jobs Accelerated Grant from the East Arkansas Planning and Development.

"We were notified a couple of weeks ago we were unsuccessful," Gearhart told the full board. "Naturally we are very disappointed, because we felt we had a good application. We will follow up with EAPD to see why we were unsuccessful in order to help us in the future."

Trammell closed the meeting reminding board members of what the NEARIFA was set up to do, and that is economic development. He challenged everyone to refocus and concentrate on that goal.

Reprinted with permission of the Pocahontas Star Herald

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