guest commentary by Ken O’Donnell
Editor’s note: Ken O’Donnell is director of the Bi-State Metropolitan Planning Organization. He has been involved in highway funding efforts for many years, and submitted the following bullet points on what Fort Smith regional leaders must do if Interstate 49 is to be funded at adequate levels.
• Refocus all efforts to view the I-49 project as a series of phases or doable links.
These need to be prioritized based on such criteria as traffic, safety, economic impact, and potential for leveraging other improvements or being leveraged by other improvements such as an intermodal operation or significant increases in freight movements
• 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.
We have recommended this action for 25 years. This person would not be a lobbyist. He or she would work within the system to secure state funds from the Legislature and the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department (AHTD) for portions of the necessary non-federal share of project phase(s).
• In combination with this activity, immediately establish a Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) that would have one function — generate revenues through bonds, fees or taxes (a portion of current local sales taxes of local jurisdictions dedicated to the RMA) to augment the state revenues mentioned above.
The local initiatives initiated through the RMA would have numerous echoing impacts both here and in DC.
In Arkansas: The RMA enabling legislation was perceived by the AHTD to be their creation. The facts are that the idea for such legislation began with Jim McKenzie from Metroplan and fostered through the coordinated efforts of Jeff Hawkins from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Commission, myself, and McKenzie. Later, we were able to bring into the debate among others, the cities of Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Little Rock, and the Northwest Arkansas Council. Because the AHTD believes that this was their baby, I believe they have a sense of ownership. We can use that to our advantage by creating an RMA, empowering it to work toward raising revenue for what would be essentially the AHTD’s project, and effectively saying for all to hear: “Now we have raised our portion for your project, lets get serious about your portion.” This would also resonate in the Legislature because of precedent, participation and pragmatism.
In Washington, D.C: The impending re-authorization of the current highway bill, (SAFETEA-LU) will have language in it referring to the need for urban areas to step up and provide alternative funding mechanisms for transportation improvements. The language that I have seen has specifically mentioned the establishment mobility authorities. Although the proposed language is in relationship to large urban areas (200,000-500,000 population and above), we would be wise to establish one here so we may become eligible for possible additional federal assistance over and above any categorical funding that might be available through interstate funding (now called the National Highway System) or a new category known as Highways of Regional or National Significance. (It’s important to know that when asked by the FHWA to submit its candidate for the Highways of Regional or National Significance designation, the AHTD submitted the I-69 corridor and not I-49. It’s also interesting to note that I only found out about this after they had submitted I-69 as their choice. Protocol and/or process should have required the involvement of the Bi-State MPO and its member governments in this selection process since the AHTD had known for decades about our involvement in the I-49 project.)
If we establish our own mechanism to generate revenues for the completion of I-49 in our area, our Congressional Delegation would be better armed to do battle for us in securing federal assistance for the project. It would also give them the political capital they could use to approach the AHTD a bit more forcefully on our behalf. As you know, the AHTD’s insulation and autonomy runs very deep.
• Secure the right-of-way for I-49 either by purchase, dedication, or eminent domain.
This is a large undertaking to sell to the general; public since there would not be an immediate return on this investment. (Leadership. Leadership. Leadership.) The importance of having the right-of-way, besides the obvious, is that the value of the land can be used, in part, as part of the non-federal share of the project.
• It is imperative to have the region’s local business community totally engaged in supporting the I-49 project and the methods that are chosen to pursue the funding and raise the project’s importance at the state and federal levels.
The system works in a peculiar way. State governmental agencies (mainly AHTD) are, in theory, servants of the state but in reality they move more quickly in response to commerce. To an extent, Little Rock and Fayetteville seem to work the theoretical approach to the system primarily due to the population of Little Rock and central Arkansas and likely due to the flagship status of Fayetteville. State government (again mainly AHTD) sees the local business communities as de-facto local jurisdictions. Although we have the Manufacturing Executives Association of Fort Smith, and they can be very effective in many regards, we need to have the very heaviest of hitters in our area to step forward. (Once again, leadership…leadership…leadership.)
• Lastly, the Fort Smith Region needs to become the visible leader in the I-49 campaign. Lead by example and offer to assist the other communities along the identified route’s project phases in establishing similar entities as the RMA so that they can begin to generate revenues, obtain rights-of-way, and work their own political processes.
• It is important to remain optimistic in this effort even as difficult as it has been and probably will continue to be. That someone might have to fall on the sword is a real possibility. But realistically, the suggestions I have made and the resulting positions that the AHTD, Federal Highway Administration, Legislature, and our Congressional Delegation will find themselves in could mirror a person painting themselves into a corner. However our local efforts will be both transparent and engaging. 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.