Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
Billy, the old friend from the college days at Arkansas Tech University, called this week to get an update on a previous conversation.
He’d traveled into Fort Smith a few weeks ago, experienced the stop and go of the construction along Interstate 540, and at that time called to ask if the interstate rehab would include any beautification work.
Before we move on, Kind Reader should know that Billy is convinced The City Wire will never be a long-term success unless it includes stories about hunting seasons, high school football, NASCAR, and presents a weekly photo feature of a local Hooters girl.
For more background, the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department has contracted out more than $78 million in I-540 rehab work that stretches from Van Buren and into Fort Smith to the Rogers Avenue exit. The work should be complete by May 2014 – July 2014 at the latest.
“This would be a good time to pretty up that eastern entrance to Fort Smith as you come off the Arkansas River bridge. That stretch of interstate sure hasn’t done your fair little city any favors. It looks like someone took a big-ass bucket of ugly and spilled it everywhere,” Billy pontificated. “You should ask your city folks or them highway guys if they got any plans to make that look like something other than a scene from one of them movies about aliens attacking us and making everything look like Europe did after we beat Hitler.”
Those were his thoughts a few weeks ago. The call this week came Sunday afternoon after Billy had consumed a few beers and just watched Tony Stewart, his NASCAR favorite, get “knocked out of the race by that no-account Kyle Busch,” the NASCAR driver Billy loves to hate.
Billy: Did you talk to any of the fellas in charge at the city or state about doing something nice with your interstate entrance?
MT: I did, and as much as it pains me to admit, you were correct. There are no plans to spend an extra dime on anything to improve that entrance.
Billy: I knew it! Them government folks got no imagination. They got no interest in doing anything more than just the bare-bones requirements.
MT: Well, that’s not completely true. Several years ago, Fort Smith officials went back and forth with highway folks to put up a welcome sign and do a few other things to improve the entrance when the Kelley Highway bridge over I-540 was renova
Billy: And lemme guess; no deal? Right?
Billy: Just slap some patterned concrete up and call it a day. That’s all them state highway boys know to do.
MT: The city was told that a welcome sign was in the right-of-way, and if someone ran off the road it could make the wreck worse.
Billy: That’s stupid.
MT: It gets better. The city offered to move the signage up higher on the hill next to the top of the bridge. The highway folks still refused, saying it could be a right-of-way hazard.
Billy: A right-of-way hazard?! What the f*&^ do they think the bridges and the light poles and them things they are now putting in the middle of the interstate are?
MT: That’s kind of what I thought also. But you were right about what they would say.
Billy: Do you remember what it was exactly that I said you’d hear directly from the highway department folks.
MT: You told me they’d come up with a thousand reasons why two or three good ideas won’t or can’t work. You told me that bureaucrats at that level
Billy: That bureaucrats in a state agency full of engineers get one of them lobotomy things done on the creative side of their brain so it don’t do anything to accidentally cause them to say yes to something outside of their little pre-engineered world.
MT: You’re right, but the folks who lack imagination are the ones calling the shots.
Billy: Not only do they lack imagination, but they think you and I and everybody else is stupid and that we ain’t never been anywhere outside of Arkansas.
MT: How’s that?
Billy: My job has me traveling a six-state region. I see stuff in these other states and cities where they’ve done some pretty creative things along the interstate to make their entrances a lot more welcoming. And you travel several states with your daughters and their volleyball teams. You see it too, right?
MT: Yes. For example, Oklahoma City has contemporary art along the interstate stretch south of their downtown area.
Billy: Then what them Arkansas highway folks want us to believe is that folks in Missouri and Texas and Oklahoma don’t much care for the safety of travelers along their interstates. Hell, you have big statue of Bass Reeves on the Fort Smith entrance on the west. Are we supposed to believe that folks coming in from Oklahoma drive safer than folks entering town from the Van Buren side?
MT: That’s an interesting way to look at it.
Billy: Damn right that’s an interesting way to look at it. So what are you going to do about it?
MT: Nothing. If city officials can’t get the highway department to act, I don’t see where I can
Billy: Then you’re part of the problem.
MT: How do you get that?
Billy: You used to get fired up about this sort of thing; the guy who wouldn’t easily settle for the first “No,” answer he received. Now you just say, “Oh well,” and move on. Nothing gets done when folks just go along with the establishment. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with your city.
MT: Look, this project is underway. It would take a lot of
Billy: Yeah, it will take a lot of something, but what’s there to lose? I say you raise hell. That fella who done got fired up about y’all’s trash issue some months back didn’t just give in and go along. Maybe you get a Facebook page thingy going.
MT: That’s a possibility.
Billy: And you could reach out and get some help from them civic clubs. Or better yet, maybe you get them smart kids at your area high schools to enter a competition to see who can come up with the best design for the interstate entrance. Maybe you get some architect or design students from the local universities there to also come up with some beautification plans.
MT: Billy, I think you may be on to something.
Billy: Damn right I’m on to something.
MT: We could cap the work at say, $250,000, so the students or anyone else working on a design could have some cost parameters.
Billy: There you go! Now you’re with me. And surely you can get them city or state folks to pony up some money to pay for it.
MT: Let’s not push our luck.
Billy: Don’t sissy out on me! What you do next is get some feedback on this idea. You include your e-mail address on these essay things, right?
MT: Yes. Why?
Billy: Well, just tell folks to e-mail you if they want to help or have them leave a comment with other ideas or whatever.
MT: OK. Guess it can’t hurt.
Billy: Darn right it can’t hurt. And good luck with it. I gotta go. My brother-in-law is coming soon, so I need to hide the beer and my tools. He only comes over when he needs one or both of those things. Last time he got my beer and my tools at the same time he accidentally connected his water heater to his lawn sprinkler system and for about a week his family had to take hot showers in the back yard between the rose bushes and the honeysuckle.