The Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority is scheduled to meet with the chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next month, the second meeting with a high-ranking Washington politician in Fort Smith since August regarding infrastructure-related issues.
According to RITA Executive Director Mat Pitsch, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, a Republican from Pennsylvania and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was invited to visit Fort Smith and meet with RITA by U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers.
The visit will be much like U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe's visit to Fort Smith in August, when the Oklahoma Republican and ranking member of the Senate's Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee toured the area's infrastructure, heard about area needs and met for a question and answer session with the RITA board of directors.
Pitsch said bringing senior politicians like Shuster and Inhofe to the area places special emphasis on the region's infrastructure needs that the board hopes will be kept in mind when funding is allocated for infrastructure development.
"When we bring in people like Congressman Shuster, we are trying to shine a bright light on where we want to see this interstate," Pitsch said, specifically highlighting the group's efforts to see the interstate completed from Alma to Texarkana.
Pitsch said the success of meetings with Inhofe and Shuster will not be able to necessarily be measured in tangible, immediate ways.
"If you define success as shining a bright light, that is the success of what RITA can do. We all understand that money for roads (is limited). We all hear the stories, but that doesn't mean that we don't want to communicate with the folks (responsible for funding) to build this road. Our job is to keep shining bright lights where we need interstates, railroads, the (slack water) harbor and expand the airport and offer to help in any way we can help."
He said specifically that the days of getting large earmarks to fund the billions needed to complete the interstate or other infrastructure projects were in the past, adding that the focus during each budget cycle should be on completing segments of the road that will eventually join Interstate 49 into a single roadway from Louisiana to Kansas City.
To illustrate his point, Pitsch pointed to the segments of the interstate completed from north of the Arkansas state line to Kansas City, as well as stretches from Bella Vista to Alma, the stretch through Chaffee Crossing expected to open next month and another stretch from Texarkana to the Louisiana border.
"You always want to keep the end in mind and we want an interstate that traverses the middle of the U.S., but when asking for an interstate in one chunk you don't get a responsive audience. But if you put it into bite-sized pieces, you might."
One of the more critical bite-sized pieces is an about 15-mile segment across the Arkansas River near Fort Smith that would connect I-49 near Alma to the northern segment of I-49 at Chaffee Crossing and Barling. That piece is estimated to cost at least $350 million.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark, said in August that even getting funding to replenish the federal Highway Trust Fund was going to be a challenge and added that for new projects, it would be essential for the federal government to receive assistance from local and state governments.
Pitsch may have an opportunity to influence the state's funding of highway projects in January when he is sworn in to his first term as a state representative after winning a primary in May and having no general election opponent in the November general election. But he said it is difficult to say what exactly he will be able to do in the short term as a state representative to get funding, such as requesting state surplus funds be used for interstate construction.
"I would hope to be involved in some transit issues from my day job, but the House is one of 100 people. I'm going to be a freshman legislator down there. I'm all about roads and infrastructure. … I'm all about that. Infrastructure leads to jobs, employed people and a better society and economy. But as to what kind of an impact someone who has not served in the legislature can have, it's not fair (to try and answer that question right now). I don't want to say that I'm going to do this and that."
As for what happens after Shuster's visit, Pitsch said it is anyone's guess. The hope, he said, is that the Fort Smith projects will be top of mind for Shuster and Inhofe as they head back to the Hill and that the Arkansas Congressional delegation is able to remind both men about the area's infrastructure needs as bills are written and come before committee in the next Congress.