Streets CIP committee member likens Kelley Highway extension to buying ‘toys for the public’ 

by Aric Mitchell (amitchell@talkbusiness.net) 990 views 

Fort Smith’s planned Kelley Highway extension tentatively scheduled for construction in 2021 commanded the most attention from members of the capital improvement plan (CIP) advisory committee for streets, bridges, and drainage on Thursday (Sept. 13).

United States Marshals Museum (USMM) President and CEO Patrick Weeks attended the group’s September meeting to voice his support for the extension, but he received pushback from committee member Robert Brown, who argued the city had more important issues on which to spend the voter-approved 1% sales tax that will be up for renewal in 2024.

Brown said the city has lost sight of its commitment to drainage projects and that could be seen in recurring flooding issues exemplified in areas like May Branch and Town Branch. The city plans to spend $12.5 million from 2019-2023 purchasing properties so it can implement solutions to reduce some of those floods.

However, the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the project in 2006 at an estimated cost of $32 million. A later cost analysis found the project had grown to around $65 million. That effectively placed it out-of-reach for federal funding because the city doesn’t have a high enough percentage raised to activate federal help and complete the overall project.

Brown said there are only plans for the 1% tax through 2023 after which it will come back before voters.

“We’ve taken small steps (toward addressing drainage issues), but it hasn’t been enough. If we’re going to address flooding, then we need to get on it, and if that means taking $15 million from Kelley and, no disrespect, 50 cars a day (estimated average daily traffic to the Museum from the north and the east per a 2014 feasibility study) — then we need to be doing that instead of buying toys for the public. … We have to get our priorities right.”

Weeks said the Kelley Highway extension was about more than the U.S. Marshals Museum. He said it was about the “cultural campus” of downtown Fort Smith and about alleviating traffic from large trucks as per the recommendations of the Propelling Downtown Forward strategic redevelopment plan.

“It’s also about the new businesses and entities that will come to Fort Smith and the rest of the private investment that add to that cultural campus,” Weeks said.

The third-party 2014 feasibility study regarding the Museum found annualized visitors of around 113,000. It also noted that 77,000 of those visitors would be from 50 miles away or further, the metric the state of Arkansas uses for tracking overnight stays and economic impact. The Museum has raised the full $32 million needed to fund the site, building, and attached Hall of Honor. It needs another $17.1 million to complete fundraising on the total project. The Museum will open on Sept. 24, 2019, and it will launch a national marketing campaign in the next few weeks targeting the 94 federal districts that have active U.S. Marshals.

The Kelley Highway extension is on the city’s 2019-2020 CIP for the purchase of rights-of-ways and relocation of utilities. If it remains on schedule, construction would begin in 2021 with a probable finish date sometime in 2023 before the 1% tax comes back before voters. The city’s Board of Directors have the final say on prioritization and only accept recommendations from the CIP committee. Brown was the only one at Thursday’s meeting who voiced opposition of taking up the extension at this time.

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