Road widening, downtown truck traffic part of Fort Smith Board session

story by Ryan Saylor

A brainstorming session was held Monday evening (Aug. 25) for the Fort Smith Board of Directors at the city's sanitation department headquarters, with a wide range of topics receiving attention from the group of seven city directors.

Vice Mayor Kevin Settle raised the topic of possibly adding a corridor from State Highway 45 to Planters Road to Massard Road as the city's next priority, as traffic has increased along the route. He also noted the investment being made by several industrial facilities along the corridor.

"As private businesses make an investment, we have to. I know it's a state road (Highway 45) and there's a lot going on, but we need to start putting that in our priority of the state issues and start getting that project (started). Like we did with the pavilion area and from Phoenix to Zero. We have that and who would have ever thought of five lanes and it's full of traffic all the time.”

The point Settle raised lead into a discussion with City Director Keith Lau regarding truck traffic through the city of Fort Smith and the possibility of extending Kelley Highway to Riverfront Drive as a way to relieve truck traffic through downtown.

"If we're going to make that (downtown) an entertainment venue and ultimately open the door – not saying that that's the case – but to do something and close that truck traffic, or at least get that truck traffic (out of the core of downtown)," Lau said.

City Administrator Ray Gosack said the city already has a route in place that is only supposed to introduce truck traffic to Garrison Avenue from 5th Street to the west.

To Lau's point of possibly extending Kelley to Riverfront and allow a more direct line of traffic to Interstate 540, Gosack said it not only would add nearly 18 miles round trip to a truck's journey and possibly hit a company's bottom line, he said it would also add more risk for drivers of both private automobiles and commercial big rigs.

"They like getting out of the city traffic as fast as they can because that's the most dangerous travel for trucks is being in city traffic, so the more time they spend in city traffic, the most risk they have of being in an accident. So they want to get out of city traffic as fast as they can and for them, those located near downtown is going across the Garrison Avenue bridge.”

As a workaround, Lau proposed the possibility of closing downtown to truck traffic on certain weekend nights between the hours of 8 p.m. and 1 or 2 a.m. in order to cultivate entertainment in the area that may not have previously considered downtown Fort Smith.

Gosack said the city could possibly approach some companies that use the downtown routes about those possibilities.

"But when I hear people complain about truck traffic, I tell them we're the manufacturing capitol of the state. We're going to get trucks and trains. They go together," Gosack said.

"And we don't want to jack with that," Lau responded.

"We want to help existing businesses hear as much as we can," Settle noted.

On the topic of traffic and roadways, Gosack noted that the city was likely to hold a special election in May 2015 regarding renewal of a sales tax to benefit road projects.

He said voters would have the option to vote on renewal of the tax and would also have the option of directing where the money is spent with individual votes on roads, trails, and shared roadways (bike trails on the same streets car traffic moves), among others. Should the tax pass, its use would be restricted to uses that passed along with the tax.

Part of the discussion came about after Lau asked to know whether it was more expensive to build shared roadways or individual trails. Gosack said the shared roadways are more expensive since the bike lanes would have to be built to the same standard as the lanes next to them carrying cars.

During the discussion, it was also revealed that the city is getting closer to a finalized consent decree with the United States Department of Justice regarding Fort Smith's non-compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Gosack said a study session regarding the details of the decree and the financial models being developed by consultants to comply with the act would likely be presented at that time.

He added that the DoJ had their hands to the city's back pushing them to finalize the plan currently in negotiations. Settle said he would like for representatives of the Justice Department to be present at the meetings, which Gosack said happened when an administrative order was imposed on the city for violation of the Clean Water Act in the 1980s.

"Back I think it was in the early 1980s when the city went under a consent decree for sewer work, they invited people from the regulatory agencies to the Board meeting and they basically told them, 'If you don't approve this, you will go to jail, you will go to jail, you will go to jail,'" Gosack said, pointing to members of the Board as he told the story. "If that's what they're going to do, I don't want that.”

Settle said he'd still like to have someone from the Justice Department on hand to answer questions regarding the consent decree and improvements the city should fund in order to be in compliance with the Clean Water Act.

The City Wire has previously reported that final compliance with the DoJ's administrative order from the 1980s and the latest consent decree could total more than $350 million.