The Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District (CBID) voted unanimously to recommend the Propelling Downtown Forward plan for the Board of Directors’ consideration at a Tuesday morning (June 20) meeting. However, the conflict between the CBID and the area’s trucking industry continued to play out.
The CBID met earlier in the day to address the item, which would have been approved at last Tuesday’s (June 13) special study session had the group of downtown business leaders had a quorum in attendance. Commissioners made support for the plan official on a motion from General Pallets owner Phil White, who has been one of the group’s more outspoken mouthpieces on the plan’s most controversial topic: addressing truck traffic.
The CBID spent the bulk of Tuesday discussing the issue with Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken and Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark as well as trucking executives from a number of companies with ties to the downtown area.
Geffken and Clark emphasized the difficulty in enforcing the current truck route with a shortage of officers and resources. Clark said the police department had issued 15 citations and 68 warnings for violations of the truck route downtown during the previous 18 months. Five of the citations and 44 of the warnings came since January. However, White did not feel the efforts went far enough.
“If you put an officer down here, you can get five citations in one hour. That’s how bad the problem is,” White said. “We’re not here promoting any certain route other than enforcement of an existing route that’s been in place for years. This is all we’re after: why can’t we get it enforced?”
Fellow CBID commissioner and Propak owner Steve Clark observed stopping a truck creates a time issue for police officers, and, as CBID chair Richard Griffin stated, “When the truck stops, so does everything else.” The stops are also more hazardous to law enforcement, who are operating away from their vehicle in a tighter space.
One idea floated at the meeting was to improve the quality of signage that denotes the acceptable trucking route. The city has already removed a crepe myrtle tree that was blocking one portion of signage. City representatives have also tested plan-suggested routes alongside drivers from OK Foods to grasp the hurdles trucking companies are up against moving a 53-foot tractor-trailer combo down side streets without requiring the use of both lanes.
TRUCKING EXECUTIVES RESPOND
White suggested trucking companies that pay tickets for their drivers to stop doing so.
“If we enforce the law and the companies would not pay the fines for their drivers, then they (the drivers) will take responsibility. We’ve got to all take responsibility for this. And when I hear, ‘We don’t have the time to enforce the law,’ I have a problem with that. I know it takes time to stop them, but if it’s the law, it’s the law.”
When asked to weigh in regarding proactive measures trucking companies take to hold their drivers accountable, Dwayne Queen of Arkansas Refrigerated Services (ARS) said each driver is given a map with the route and delivery point.
“It’s a performance issue. If you get a ticket, then you’re off the route. It affects us and reflects poorly on us. We don’t want to be part of the problem.”
Queen said ARS will pay the ticket for their drivers, but noted the driver still has a stake.
“They could get fined. It’s points against them on their CDL (commercial drivers license), and a CDL is not something you want to mess with or have points against. It’s hard to renew and maintain.”
When drivers realize a $150 fine could cost them a $45,000 a year job, Queen added, the issue can become self-policing.
Michael Johns, general counsel for ArcBest, reiterated how important points on a CDL are in promoting best practices with drivers. Johns said technology, particularly enhanced GPS, “is helping us.”
“Truckers are independent people, and sometimes they don’t always do what they’re asked. Tickets lead to points on the CDL, and (at ArcBest) they get written up.”
Russ Bragg of OK Foods said his company did not pay tickets for drivers. He also noted his company’s trucks have no need to go beyond 5th Street. That said, he recently observed a driver turn off at 10th.
“I called the dispatch, and said, ‘When he gets in, you write him up.’ That’s how we have to do it.” Bragg continued: “We fight keeping them on the truck route in every city we go to. It’s not just Fort Smith. We deliver to 42 of the contiguous U.S. states. You can only get so many points on your CDL, so overall compliance or adherence to the truck route is pretty good, or we wouldn’t have any drivers.”
ENFORCEMENT OF EXISTING LAW
If CBID or anyone else wanted to see changes, Bragg added, one effective measure would be picking up the phone and saying, “‘This is Phil White, I’m with General Pallets. I’m part of the CBID. Who can I talk to at OK Foods about transportation concerns? Because we’ve got a problem downtown we’re trying to fix, and we need help. What can we do to get you to keep your brand name trucks off the streets?’ Let’s start there first.”
White responded that while he “appreciated the dialogue and efforts” of OK Foods in their traffic counts over the years, “it was over 10 years ago when this dialogue started, and we’re still talking about it.”
White continued: “When you suggest we ignore the enforcement of the law, and that we become the enforcers by having to pick the phone up, I have a hard time with that. We donate our time for what we’re doing for downtown, and we have our own businesses to run. … There are other laws we don’t ignore the enforcement of, so why should we ignore the enforcement of this one? Sometimes we have to make tough choices to do the right things.”
‘OUT OF BUSINESS’
For Susan McMahon Taylor, president of Belle Point Beverages, a “tough choice” for her business would be approval of the Propelling Downtown Forward plan as-is. The local delivery business owner said there “are quite a few of the initiatives proposed through this that would effectively put us out of business, so it’s a major concern for us.”
“It doesn’t necessarily affect some of our trucking industry friends (as much), but we feel like we’re stakeholders as well. It’s very disturbing.”
Taylor said her family’s business has been located in downtown Fort Smith for 71 years, and quoted the words of her late father, businessman and philanthopist David McMahon, saying: “‘You know we’ll move, just bring us a bunch of money. That’s all it takes. We’ll get out of your way. You can have our place, you can close B Street, you can close the access roads, you can do what you want to Clayton Expressway.’”
For now, the Propelling Downtown Forward plan highlights objectives for downtown. None of the proposed changes will be taken as mandates even if it is affirmed by the Fort Smith Board of Directors at Tuesday night’s regular meeting. However, Taylor said, she “takes it personally” and called the plan “very disheartening.”
“So when you are considering things that are maybe to you a minor change, you’ve got to take into consideration it’s not minor for everyone,” Taylor said.