I-49 funding possible, needs regional leadership

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 135 views 

story by Michael Tilley

Doug Thomas has good news for those still interested in the effort to fund and construct Interstate 49 through western Arkansas. And Ken O’Donnell makes the argument that success with I-49 will depend on more aggressive leadership from Fort Smith regional business and civic leaders.

(Unfortunately, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce has refused to answer numerous attempts to learn more about the chamber’s involvement in the I-49 effort. Chamber President Tom Manskey is president of the I-49 Coalition, a group of communities and chambers in Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri. See more about this at the end of this story.)

Thomas, a partner with the Washington D.C.-based Watts Partners, is one of the lead Capitol Hill lobbyists in charge of representing the interests of the city of Fort Smith.

The push for I-49 funding is reaching a critical period. Congress will consider reauthorization of the Federal Highway Bill and Congressional leaders are hinting at passage of a highway infrastructure stimulus bill to help with economic recovery. The stimulus bill would, according to Thomas, likely funnel money to significant, short-term projects that can get people working within 120 days.

“I-49 can be a candidate for the stimulus if it meets that requirement,” Thomas said.

Thomas is scheduled to attend the Tuesday (Dec. 9) Fort Smith Board of Directors study session where he will offer an update on lobbying efforts for I-49 and other city projects. When the city hired Watts Partners about a year ago to lobby for the city, the board of directors listed I-49 as the No. 1 project.

With a possible infrastructure stimulus bill having a focus on major projects already approved, it’s important for Fort Smith to “have its ducks in a row” and be prepared to “submit the right information” to the appropriate Congressional committees, Thomas said.

“My marching orders are to treat it (I-49) as the top project … to make sure it is on the right path,” Thomas said.

He said he is in “constant discussion” with key staffers representing U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and U.S. Rep. John Boozman, R-Rogers.

Ken O'DonnellO’Donnell, (left) director of the Bi-State Metropolitan Planning Organization, has seen many federal and state funding cycles come and go with not enough funding for I-49.

It is for that reason O’Donnell believes regional leaders have no choice but to act aggressively and with innovative action on political and financing fronts. He outlined several ideas in a recent report. The ideas include:

• Refocus all efforts to view the I-49 project as a series of phases or doable links.

• Encourage the region’s business community to become actively engaged in supporting the I-49 project and the methods chosen to pursue the funding and raise the project’s importance at the state and federal levels.

• Establish a council, group, or whatever one may want to call it that is comprised of our region’s business and community leaders that can generate enough financial resources to hire a director that does nothing but work the angles for the project.

• Expect more support from the Arkansas Legislature, the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department, the Federal Highway Administration and Arkansas’ Congressional delegation.

“It is time for the above-mentioned players to become our partners or be placed into a position to publicly explain why they are not or won’t be,” O’Donnell wrote in a report. (The complete report from O’Donnell on this subject will be posted Monday on The City Wire.)

For example, O’Donnell notes that the AHTD was asked by the Federal Highway Administration to submit a candidate for the “Highways of Regional or National Significance” designation. The AHTD submitted Interstate 69 (which runs through southeast Arkansas) and did not submit I-49, according to O’Donnell.

The City Wire has asked AHTD officials to confirm the I-69 submission and, if so, justify the reason(s) for selecting I-69 over I-49.

O’Donnell mentioned another consideration in the push to fund and construct I-49.

“It is important to remain optimistic in this effort even as difficult as it has been and probably will continue to be,” he advised.

Lack of response from the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce
The chamber has ignored repeated attempts by The City Wire to obtain information about activities related to promoting the funding and construction of Interstate 49. (See this story by The City Wire about I-49 and recent history of the coalition tasked with lobbying for I-49 funding.)

Four attempts were made via e-mail (Oct. 9, Nov. 14, Nov. 23, Nov. 26) to seek answers  from the chamber. The City Wire wanted to know the result of attempts to rejuvenate the organization, possibly through a change to the organizational structure, and by more effectively using Eric Tober — another Washington D.C. lobbyist — with respect to support in Washington for I-49.

The City Wire has two commitments with respect to I-49:
• We want to provide The City Wire readers with the latest and best information on efforts to fund and construct the interstate.

• While mainstream media outlets frown on being an “advocate” for any issue or event, The City Wire leadership believes I-49 is too important an issue for us to be an impartial observer. We will, therefore, attempt to closely monitor the activities and/or lack thereof among regional leaders responsible for promoting I-49.