April 20, 2016 Edition

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John Thomison of Smithville (from left), Chamber of Commerce board member, visits with Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department District Maintenance Engineer Brad Smithee and Nathan Davis, field representative for U.S. Sen. John Boozman, at the Chamber's quarterly meeting on Thursday.
TD Photo ~ Gretchen Hunt

Chamber quarterly meeting
focuses on transportation

Gretchen Hunt

Transportation was the focus of the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce quarterly meeting on Thursday at the Lawrence County Meeting Room in Walnut Ridge.

Brad Smithee, a Hoxie High School graduate and maintenance engineer for District 10 of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, spoke about funding, construction and maintenance for highways in the area.

Smithee said maintenance of highways has become very limited due to increasing costs and decreased funding.

"When I came to the highway department 28 years ago, we had the budgetary ability to put new asphalt every 18 to 20 years," he said. "The money available has changed, and the cost has really changed."

He shared that there are 1,775 centerline miles of highway in District 10, which includes Clay, Craighead, Greene, Lawrence, Mississippi, Poinsett and Randolph counties, and last year zero miles received overlays. In the four years prior to that an average of 23 to 24 miles received new asphalt.

"We have had to bring the blood flow into the core of the body," he said. "We identified the core highways that carry the bulk of transportation."

He did note that the state has been blessed with construction dollars, with a large sum of money having been spent in Lawrence County recently including $44.8 million on the new Highway 67, $39 million for the new Black River bridge and $13.7 million for the Highway 63 widening project, as well as additional smaller projects.

There are also federal funds available for safety improvements, but none of that money can be used to maintain the miles of highway already in place.

"There is no solution to the funding issue," he said. "We are trying to find money, but the budget constraints we are under are extreme."

He also updated attendees on the status of several projects, including Highway 67 from Highway 226 to Hoxie. Originally expected to open around Thanksgiving, Smithee said with the mild winter, the opening could now happen as early as the 4th of July.

"We should see an open Highway 67 very soon," he said. "I'm very optimistic that is an achievable goal."

He said he also expects that the Highway 63 project through Portia should be completed by the end of this construction season and noted the completion of the Black River bridge project.

Also on tap is the widening of Highway 412 from Walnut Ridge to Highway 141, near Paragould. Funded through CAP (Connecting Arkansas Program), it will upgrade the remaining two-lane highway to five lanes.

"We expect that to start in the summer of 2017," he said. "It is a huge project."

Airport update

Don Cavenaugh, chair of the Walnut Ridge Airport Commission, also shared an update, including the importance of the $1.8 million in state and federal grants received over the past year.

A bulk of that funding is going to maintenance and repairs, with the majority of it going to concrete work.

"We have 60 acres in concrete in ramp space and taxiways," Cavenaugh said. "If it wasn't for grants we wouldn't have enough money for these projects."

Other projects funded through the grant money have included runway signage, approach indicator, runway striping and repair of the airports tetrahedron, which Cavenaugh referred to as a mechanical windsock.

Cavenaugh shared that the airport is self-sustaining, covering operation costs with fuel sales, rentals, commercial property and farmland. In addition, the airport is a FEMA disaster site, C-130 training site and offers three runways.

"Walnut Ridge wants to be the airport of choice for pilots flying into Northeast Arkansas," Cavenaugh said.

Completion of
trail expected

Dr. Brett Cooper, chair of the Chamber's Transportation Committee, announced that grant funding has become available again through the AHTD for the county's rail-trail project.

Cooper said he and fellow Rail-Trail Committee member Junior Briner were in Little Rock recently to find out information about the new grant cycle, with funds expected to become available June 1.

"Our first priority is to finish the trail," Cooper said. "We have a 1,300-foot section not paved yet."

Cooper said they hope to receive $15,000 to finish the paving, put up some safety measures and extend the trail to the WBC campus to add a north-end trailhead.

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