Riff Raff: Extension suspension

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 547 views 

Infrastructure is, mostly, good. Roads, utilities, runways, bridges, drainage, water systems. All that and more. Most officials of any city want smart, robust infrastructure at all levels. As do most city residents.

It’s not always easy. There is Lake Fort Smith, for example.

Around 30 years ago there began a push to expand Lake Fort Smith. It may be that some of you Kind Readers don’t remember the old lake and its park “amenities.” Looking today at the new Lake Fort Smith and the amazing park and cabins and trails, one may find it incredulous that not an insignificant group of business and civic leaders opposed the expansion. Too expensive, they claimed. Folks won’t support the tax to expand it. The state won’t honor its commitment to rebuild a state park around it. The city has other priorities, more pressing exigencies. We’ll have time in the future to expand it if we think we’re getting short on water, said those opposed.

Fortunately for all of us who like to daily use or consume clean water and live in or near the Fort Smith metro, smarter heads prevailed. The fear of tackling the big thing was overcome. A progressive vision of water quality, capacity and having a superb ancillary state park won the day. Voters said yes to a limited tax to expand the lake.

It was a victory for a bold infrastructure upgrade, and Fort Smith’s water supply is now the envy of many metro areas.

Which is why it’s been a challenge to address my inability to understand the need for this Planters Road extension. Am I becoming one of those old curmudgeons who couldn’t see the benefit of an expanded Lake Fort Smith?

After all, the road is infrastructure, and will be a convenient connection between south Fort Smith and Massard Road in the growing part of east Fort Smith. And a key reason for the extension is there is not now an east-west connection for that part of the city. To be sure, it would connect commerce and rooftops in the growing part of east Fort Smith with the same in south and west Fort Smith.

But unlike the Lake Fort Smith expansion, the road does not address a critical existing or long-term need. And unlike a new state park with an expanded lake, the road extension does not have an ancillary benefit. If anything, it presents problems for future trail and greenspace improvements in the region.

Also, the city estimates the extension will cost $16 million – or about $2,222 per foot. At a time when city officials are scrambling to find $20 million to help improve Towson Avenue and its underlying water system infrastructure, it’s hard to balance the needs vs. wants equation for the alleged convenience of a less than two-mile road through what is now a green space holding potential for future outdoor amenities.

Other than city staff, there are few who are suggesting the road is something to consider. A growing number of folks who appreciate undisturbed wide open spaces have and continue to push back against the idea. The Sebastian County Quorum Court has opposed the idea. The body has approved a $172,800 offer to buy the property from the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority.

“With the purchase of this property, the citizens of the county will be able to enjoy the entirety of the park without the noise, disturbance and safety concerns of a road splitting our park in two, not to mention crossing several park trails,” Sebastian County Judge Steve Hotz noted in a memo to the Chaffee Authority.

Indeed the road would cut Ben Geren Regional Park in two, with 291 acres separated from 978 park acres to the north of the road’s planned location. While wholly anecdotal, the public clamor in recent years has been for more bike trails, walking trails and other outdoor “infrastructure.” Any clamor for the Planters Road extension has not reached my ears.

Unless city staff or other road proponents can craft a longer list of credible reasons for a $16 million slice through valuable wide open green space, let’s hope the Fort Smith Board of Directors put this issue to rest by pushing the road off the list of possible and/or planned capital improvements.