Fort Smith reviews trail, bikeways plan; may seek funds from street tax

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 304 views 

Fort Smith citizens were offered the opportunity Thursday (Sept. 25) to have a say in the future of the city's 88-mile trails and greenways master plan.

Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Commissioner Casey Millspaugh, a Trails and Greenways Committee chaired by himself and Parks Commissioner Sheri Toliver joined together with the city's parks and engineering departments to host the community-wide open house Thursday at the Elm Grove Community Center. Different concepts were presented for the future of trails in Fort Smith.

Parks Director Mike Alsup said the goal of Thursday's event was not simply to find out what type of trail or bike lane design the public favored, but also to help in updating the master plan first rolled out 10 years ago.

"We'd like the public to let us know where (they'd like to see trails) connect, where they'd like to see the trails go," he said. "That would be helpful."

Alsup said having the public engage with the city is the only way for the local government to know where adjustments need to be made, noting that growth patterns and development in the decade since the master plan was first announced could have shifted where trails should be.

A variety of trails have already been installed in east and south Fort Smith, namely around Ben Geren Park and Chaffee Crossing, with another trail being constructed along the Arkansas River. Funding for the River West Trail along the banks of the Arkansas River near downtown is being made possible through funding from the Walton Family Foundation. The River West Trail will cost about $1 million per mile to construct, with about two miles of trail planned in its initial phase.

In plans presented at Thursday's open house, Engineering Director Stan Snodgrass noted that costs were higher on the River West Trail than the typical trail included in the city's trail plan due to its proximity to the river and the need to construct the trail using concrete instead of asphalt. He said additional amenities including landscaping and decorative lighting were included that would not typically be included in other trails across the city.

The total costs for trails and greenways in the city, Snodgrass said, would run about $125,000 per mile.

Another option presented to citizens during the informal open house Thursday was a bike lane included in future road construction projects, adding bikers to the roadways traveled by cars. The lanes would have bikes following the flow of traffic, though bike lanes would provide about four feet of room for travel on the shoulder separate from a car lane.

According to Snodgrass, total costs for bike lanes included in the roadway would be between $190,000 and $340,000 per mile.

"When you build it as part of the roadway section, you've got to build it a whole lot thicker because it's not feasible when you're doing your roadway section to shallow it up on your outside edge. So whereas when you build it separate, you may have just two or three inches of asphalt and a few inches of gravel. You get out in the street and you might have a whole lot of area where the bad materials cut under, then additional rock on that then additional whole lot thicker asphalt of concrete. That's the reason there's a range in that."

An additional meeting will be held Tuesday (Sept. 30) at Creekmore Park's community room. Data and community input gathered at both open house events, plus Facebook feedback on a Trails and Greenways fan page and any e-mails received through the city's website will be presented to the Fort Smith Board of Directors at a study session at the end of October, Snodgrass said, adding that funding for additional trails could be discussed at that time.

Funding for the trail program is now provided by the five-year capital improvement plan through the parks department, with work taking place on the River West Trail, and Alsup saying a Mill Creek Trail at a cost of $500,000 to $750,000 per mile planned for 2016.

But the capital improvement plan's budget is split between many different park priorities, including community park installations and the construction of the Ben Geren Aquatics Center. For that reason, there has been discussion of presenting to the Board the possibility of allowing voters to decide next year on renewing the streets sales tax and designating part of that funding for trails and greenways, Snodgrass said.

"(At the October study session), we'll say, 'Hey, here's some of the data that we got.' And is this something they want to consider? And I'm sure there will be another (study session) before the end of the year. The main issue is is this something that we wan to throw out to the voters to do a potential reallocation? A small percent. I couldn't tell you an exact number, but a fairly small percentage."

David Whitt, a Fort Smith resident and president of the Cardio Cycling Club in Van Buren, said while he was hesitant to vote for higher taxes, he would be in favor of taking some of the sales tax money already being collected and reallocating it to trails.

"I'd like to see more cycling trails. Anything that's used for cycling or walking or any sort of exercise is going to be beneficial to the community, so anything that they build is going to be used. Used a lot. We use them a lot right now and we'd like to see some more," he said, adding that his group regularly hits the trails in Fayetteville and Little Rock.

Alsup said input from Thursday's open house and the planned meeting Tuesday will help determine where his department directs engineering to go next with trail planning.