Arkansas seeks nearly $168.4 million in new federal funding for critical state highway projects (Updated)

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 316 views 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with several changes and additions throughout. State officials initially provided Talk Business & Politics information for a year other than 2016.

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Arkansas highway officials are involved a tight competition with other states who are collectively seeking more than $9.3 billion from a federal highway grant program that only awards $500 million a year.

The money comes from the Obama administration’s so-called TIGER grant program that funds crucial U.S. highway and transportation needs. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced earlier this week that the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program has received 585 applications from across the country totaling $9.3 billion in requested funding – more than 18 times the $500 million that will be awarded.

The highly competitive program began as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which offers federal funding possibilities for large, transformative multi-modal projects. Since 2009, TIGER has provided nearly $4.6 billion to 381 projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, including 134 projects to support rural and tribal communities. Overall, the Department has received more than 6,700 applications requesting more than $134 billion for transportation projects across the country.

Now in its eighth year, the TIGER program has continued to attract overwhelming demand from communities of all sizes, with 337 applications coming from urban areas and 248 from rural communities. The high level of interest underscores the continued need for transportation investment nationwide.

“Communities across the country know that if we want a strong, multimodal transportation system that will meet our needs in the future, we need to make meaningful investments today,” Foxx said in a statement. “As we have seen year after year, there are far more worthy projects than we can fund through TIGER, demonstrating the need for a serious, long-term investment in transportation funding.”

According to information provided by Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department officials, Arkansas has three grant applications in the program that will be awarded later this year.

NORTHWEST ARKANSAS PROJECT
If awarded federal funding from the program, one of the most pressing needs will go toward AHTD’s request for federal dollars to widen and relocate 2.03 miles of Highway 265 from Randall Wobbe Lane in Springdale to Highway 264 in Bethel Heights. This project is the missing link to an otherwise fully funded eastern north-south corridor linking Fayetteville to Rogers, state highway officials said.

If that project is selected as a TIGER grant awardee, $17 million will come from the federal government, while the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission has dedicated $3.6 million. The $6.5 million balance for the $27.1 million project will be paid for with a mix of state and other federal highway dollars.

In 2014, when the state first applied for TIGER funds for this project, AHTD officials said the Highway 265 Corridor was a culmination of extensive planning and environmental studies that began in 2009. In the application, state highway officials said the criteria used for designating this corridor included cost effectiveness, the overall impacts and public input.

“The purpose of the project is to improve north-south connectivity and enhance mobility for travelers in the Northwest Arkansas metro area,” the application said. “It will provide a regional connection between Fayetteville, Springdale, Bethel Heights, Lowell, Bentonville and Rogers. This corridor will alleviate traffic congestion on existing north-south routes, especially Highway 71B.”

AHTD also pointed to the region’s substantial economic and population spike over the past 15 years, saying that growth is expected to continue over the next 20 years.

“Improvements to Highway 265 will assist in providing the infrastructure needed to serve this expansion, thus contributing to the economic health of the area,” AHTD says in the 14-page application. “The economic benefits from the project would include gains in overall efficiency, enhanced movement of goods and people, and increased access to the main industrial area in eastern Springdale.”

CENTRAL ARKANSAS, PINE BLUFF WORK
The second AHTD application involves $52.5 million in major improvements to the fast-growing areas in West Little Rock on U.S. Highway 10 between Ferndale Cut-Off Road and Highway 300 that has two through lanes. Within the Little Rock metropolitan area, it is a principal arterial that provides access to the northern and western portions of Little Rock and Pulaski County.

In recent years, Highway 10, within the urban boundary of Little Rock, has become a heavily developed urban corridor. It was widened in the 1990’s between Interstate 430 and Highway 300 from a two-lane highway to a four-lane highway with a continuous two-way, left turn lane.

In 2013 a highway improvement study was conducted on approximately 8.3 miles of what was then, and remains now, “the most highly congested principal arterial in the state of Arkansas,” state highway officials said in the application.

This application seeks funding to extend the project an additional 2.13 miles west to the intersection of Highway 10 and Taylor Loop Road. AHTD, which is sole party requesting the federal grant, is asking for $42 million in TIGER 2016 funds for this project, and has dedicated $10.5 million of state funds to match the federal dollars. Any awarded TIGER funds will be used to convert the existing five lane road to six lanes with a raised median and reconfigure a nearby intersection, state highway officials said.

The final TIGER and most high-profile application for 2016 made by AHTD is the $88.8 million Jonesboro to I-555 project in northeast Arkansas’ Poinsett, Craighead and Crittenden counties. The TIGER funds will actually go toward seven different projects to improve highway conditions along the corridor that stretches across the three Northeast Arkansas counties into the Memphis area.

That state’s application has a detail history concerning the history of the local, state and federal highway project, and includes an economic analysis that says the corridor will be a boon to the Jonesboro area and surrounding bedroom communities. That state has requested more than $84 million in TIGER and other federal funds, which will be matched by $4.8 million state dollars.

Like the first seven rounds that funded other projects in Arkansas, 2016 TIGER discretionary grants will fund capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure and will be awarded on a competitive basis for projects that will have a significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area, or a region.

FASTLANE PROGRAM
In addition to the three applications for TIGER funds, AHTD has also submitted a three high-profile project applications for the DOT’s 2016 FASTLANE grant program, including the controversial $630 million I-30 Corridor project in Little Rock. The Obama administration has authorized $305 billion for this five-year Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) program, of which $800 million is available for projects in 2016.

The other two FASTLANE projects in Arkansas are the $188 million, I-49 project in Northwest Arkansas and the proposed smaller $27 million redesign and right-of-way acquisition for the I-69 corridor in Drew and Desha counties in the Arkansas Delta. State highway officials plan to meet in McGehee on (Thursday) June 9 to discuss FAST Act funds available for this project.

Arkansas’ highway and transportation needs was the main focus of recent special session called by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to consider how the state will pay for future road construction projects across the state. On May 23, Hutchinson signed a five-year highway bill into law Monday hours after it passed the Senate and said any longer term plan should come as a result of a voter-initiated act.

The new act will raise about $50 million a year over the next five years in order to make the state eligible for $200 million a year in federal matching funds. The legislation, which goes into effect at the beginning of fiscal 2017 on July 1, would create the Arkansas Highway Improvement Plan of 2016, which would be funded by an Arkansas Highway Transfer Fund. For 2017, the state would make a one-time transfer of $40 million in rainy day funds to the Highway Transfer Fund. In the future, the Highway Transfer Fund would be financed by deposits of 25% of state surplus funds. A Securities Reserve Fund would generate $1.5 million for the Highway Transfer Fund in fiscal year 2017 and $20 million in the following years.

The bill also would dedicate to highways money generated by diesel taxes as well as revenues from the half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2012. Some of those tax dollars go into general revenues.

 

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