Central Business Improvement District (CBID) commissioners continue to wrestle with the need for reduced truck traffic through downtown Fort Smith in order to make the area more pedestrian-friendly and cultivate entertainment and quality of life options.
At a CBID meeting last week, commissioner Bill Hanna of Hanna Oil and Gas suggested looking into permitting restrictions for truck traffic that comes through the downtown area within a certain timeframe. While Hanna admitted the plan isn’t fully fleshed out, he was simply seeking input from other commissioners, and it was an idea that intrigued many on the commission.
“If you violate the permit you might have fines, etcetera,” Hanna explained. “I keep thinking about degrees of effectiveness and to say ‘no trucks during a certain time,’ that’s a degree. To the concept of baby steps, I think permitting makes some sense. All these guys come this way because, I think, there’s an economic benefit to come this way. If it weren’t an economic benefit to come this way, they might find another way. And if they violate the permit, it would be potentially punitive.”
Commissioner Rodney Ghan of RH Ghan & Cooper Commercial Properties volunteered to help Hanna flesh out the idea. Commissioner Steve Clark, owner of Propak Logistics, the company renovating the Friedman-Mincer (OTASCO) building in downtown Fort Smith, also said he would work with Hanna and Ghan.
CBID Chairman Richard Griffin reminded commissioners that around 10 years ago, “this group with the help of the city contacted major manufacturers and asked them to analyze what they’re hauling in and out and suggest a different route, that route being 540, and that worked to some degree. That’s also part of the solution here, is to get the cooperation of the people who send and receive freight, the trucks. That ought to be part of any effort to make this palatable, even though it’s not a perfect world.”
As far as enforcement, the CBID acknowledged it would fall on the city and the Fort Smith Police Department, but electronic enforcement via camera monitoring might be a way to make the effort affordable and practical.
“Let’s say a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. timeframe,” Ghan said. “If you know between those hours, there shouldn’t be a truck or you’re in violation, I think that would be easy to monitor.”
Commissioner Phil White of General Pallets said he liked the idea because it “gives a little bit of leniency” and sends the message “we’re going to be tough, but reasonable.” Ultimately, the Fort Smith Board of Directors would have to approve permitting changes, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
Fort Smith Director Keith Lau suggested something similar at an August 2014 brainstorming session, putting forth an “8 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m. curfew” in order to cultivate entertainment options downtown. At the same session, Lau also suggested the idea of extending Kelley Highway to Riverfront Drive in an effort to relieve truck traffic through the downtown area.
“If we’re going to make that downtown an entertainment venue and ultimately open the door — not saying that that’s the case — but to do something and close that truck traffic, or at least get that truck traffic (out of the core of downtown),” Lau said.
Then-City Administrator Ray Gosack advised that the city’s existing route is “only supposed to introduce truck traffic to Garrison Avenue from 5th Street to the west.” Gosack said Lau’s suggestion would add close to 18 miles round trip to a truck’s route, possibly “hitting a company’s bottom line,” and that it could “add more risk for drivers of both private automobiles and commercial big rigs.”
“They like getting out of the city traffic as fast as they can because that’s the most dangerous travel for trucks … being in city traffic, so the more time they spend in city traffic, the most risk they have of being in an accident,” Gosack said.
STREET CLOSURE NIXED
In July 2014, CBID commissioners suggested closing down A Street and converting B Street from one-way to two-way traffic, but that received pushback from city and business leaders. Russ Bragg of OK Foods urged commissioners then to “create some type of stakeholders group that would include members of the business community. He said businesses that rely on trucking “have already studied the most efficient routes possible,” expressing worries that “any changes in downtown routing could negatively impact the bottom line” of his and other businesses in a big way.
This was something Gosack tried impressing on the CBID a month earlier, pointing to a study from Oklahoma City-based Traffic Engineering Consultants (TEC) that showed potential problems with traffic flow should A be closed and B move to two-way. versus the one-way flow currently present on A and B Streets. Among the concerns by the engineering firm was a bottleneck that would have been created along Riverfront Drive as a result of the street closure.
“Closure of North ‘A’ Street eliminates or reduces the capacity from a four lane street to a two lane street,” wrote Steven Hofener, a principal at TEC. “Although the existing traffic is within acceptable limits for a two lane two-way street, the ultimate widening and traffic increase along Riverfront Drive will create a bottleneck at the proposed two lane, two way North ‘B’ Street section.”
He also noted the head-to-head truck traffic in an urban environment created by the closure, creating more “conflict points,” as well as eliminating B Street’s current parallel parking. There was also a fear from prospective developers along the river that there would not be enough vehicular access for employees and visitors, and that closing A Street would make matters worse, perhaps forcing them to relocate plans to other parts of the city.