The Fort Smith Planning Commission unanimously approved the Propelling Downtown Forward strategic plan from Gateway Planning on Tuesday night (June 13), pushing the item through for future voting consideration by the Fort Smith Board of Directors. But acceptance did not come easy or without conditions.
Several representatives from the city’s trucking industry filled the Rose Room at the Creekmore Park Community Center to voice their opposition to the plan, particularly its emphasis on re-routing and a subsequent increase in costs and time demands.
Michael Johns, general counsel for ArcBest Corp. and son-in-law to Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders, told the commission, members of the Central Business Improvement District (CBID), and the Fort Smith Board of Directors, the company has a terminal that would be in danger if the plan was adopted as presented. Specifically, the company’s ABF Freight terminal location on Wheeler Avenue would be in danger. The terminal employs 17 and carries an annual payroll north of $1 million, translating to an average of $60,000 per year, per position.
“The household average income in Fort Smith is $36,700 and the median family income is $46,800, so by local standards, these are really good jobs,” Johns said. “Our problem with this plan is it would deny access to trucks coming to our terminal and leaving our terminal to the Garrison Avenue Bridge because you couldn’t go up Wheeler any further than South B Street, and I have to tell you that threatens the economic viability of our terminal on Wheeler Avenue. It would add about 40 to 45 minutes of travel time for every truck that leaves our facility heading west because of having to go south, east to the 540 interchange along Zero Street, then all the way around through Van Buren to I-40, and then west. All truck traffic coming back from the west would have to follow the same route in reverse.”
While Johns said there was “a lot that I like personally” with the plan, “one critical failure … is that it fails to take into account the needs of the heavy industry that’s located along Wheeler Avenue, which still is, in a lot of respects, the real center of economic activity in this community.”
“The plans need to be adjusted and traffic patterns and truck routes need to be calculated with that fact in mind,” he added.
Russ Bragg of OK Foods also took issue with the language of the over 100-page document, particularly its negative slant towards the trucking industry.
“Within the project, there are key statements that the community and the city will work with the trucking community to seek alternate routes, yet most of the language can be perceived as anti-trucks,” Bragg said, reading portions of the document like “the transformation of Riverfront Drive from a truck-oriented thoroughfare to roadway design that supports efficient traffic flow”; “Truck route bypass for remaining in downtown and regional bypass options”; and “A major challenge for this corridor is the truck traffic that passes through,” for effect.
“In clear language, ‘no trucks,’” Bragg said.
Bragg also noted the willingness of OK Foods and the industry as a whole to work with city leaders on the issue. Bragg cited a number of traffic count studies financed and conducted by the company since 2001. In particular, a traffic count from 2016 found that 5,660 trucks moved over the trucking route during a one-week period. “When I look at the study compared to 2014, we’ve actually decreased the amount of trucks by about 550 trucks,” Bragg said.
In one of the evening’s tenser moments, Phil White, CBID commissioner and owner of General Pallets, asked Bragg if CBID agreed to leave the routes as-is, how would he feel about $500 or $1,000 fines to trucks found in violation of current policies.
“Let me ask it to you this way,” Bragg responded. “For every truck you stop that’s legitimately doing what it’s supposed to, would you write that truck a thousand dollar check or a $500 check for wasting 30 minutes of that driver’s time?”
What ultimately won over the Planning Commission was the nonbinding language of the document as well as the ability to approve the plan while noting for public record a need to find compromises to address concerns of downtown businesses that rely on truck routes to maintain their economic viability. The Fort Smith Board of Directors will next consider the plan at Tuesday’s (June 20) meeting.