Fort Smith officials pursuing federal grant funds for broad sustainability program

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 513 views 

The City of Fort Smith is seeking a substantial allocation from a $4.3 billion grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in the course of the planning is developing a sustainability plan that will help Fort Smith become a green city.

The city is collaborating with Western Arkansas Planning and Development District (WAPPDD)/Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) within the Fort Smith region in a coalition with the state of Arkansas, Metroplan, and the NWA Regional Planning Commission seeking money from the $4.3 billion EPA grant dedicated to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

The city’s proposed measures encompass a comprehensive strategy, including winterization, reduced electricity consumption, and the integration of solar power solutions, Joshua Robertson, deputy director of business administration for Fort Smith, told the Fort Smith Board of Directors during a Jan. 23 study session.

The city participated in a state-wide survey on what residents want to see in terms of a sustainability plan. Of the 1,000 responses to the survey statewide, 300 were from the Fort Smith area. The top results showed that Fort Smith residents are concerned most with trees and natural areas, complete and green streets, zero-energy buildings, materials management and recycling, sustainable farming methods, connected communities and transportation choice, Robertson said.

Complete streets, Robertson said, include those designed for cars that also include sidewalks, bike lanes and green space, such as designs underway for the city for proposed changes to Rogers Avenue.

The EPA will award $4.3 billion in competitive grants for measures developed under its Climate Pollution Reduction Grants (CPRG) program. It will award individual grants between $2 million and $500 million, with funding tiers allowing comparably sized projects to compete against one another. The grant deadline is April 1, and submission of a CPRG priority plan is a prerequisite for application.

Robertson said the planning for the grant will be used to build an official sustainability plan for the city that will be ready to go if other funding opportunities emerge. The city is actively seeking other climate reduction grants and voucher programs.

“Three of the loans I’m actively pursuing right now are the energy efficiency and conservation block grant from the Department of Energy, the EPA smart growth plans and the environmental and climate justice plan programs,” Robertson said.

When it comes to the EPA grant, the state set a list of priorities including facilitating statewide economic growth and competitiveness; keeping communities safe; preparing the infrastructure workforce; preservation and promotion of the state; and creating a portfolio of reliable, efficient and secure energy options.

“The City of Fort Smith is currently engaged in quite a few of these priorities, especially on the transportation side. You’ve seen Ken Savage (Fort Smith Transit director) with the CNG buses, and he is actively pursuing grants for other things,” Robertson said.

He noted that the methane gas capture the city does at the landfill and the work Michael Mings is doing with complete streets also keeps with the state priorities.

Robertson also updated the board on the measures included in the city’s Energy and Environment Innovation Plan: Public clean transportation refinement and choices; waste management and recycling; carbon removal measures; solar and net-zero buildings; and public education and workforce.

“Each one of the measures has detailed approaches and projects,” Robertson said.

Public clean public transportation includes public transit expansion and the potential for 24/7 service for not just the city of Fort Smith, but the entire metropolitan area, he said. There are also plans being looked at that will include EV transit buses, a light-rail transportation system that would connect the MSA, smart intersections, public EV charging infrastructure, and complete streets programs with expanded e-bike programs, Robertson said.

Waste management and recycling program ideas include a city-owned and operated materials recovery facility, expanded recycling and vegetative composting. Carbon and removal measures could include watershed management expansion, land conservation easements, an expanded trail system; dam hydroelectric power upgrades and expansion, and port operation enhancements for energy efficiency, he said.

For solar and net-zero buildings, the city is looking at a large-scale city solar plant, upgrading municipal facilities for energy efficiency, low-income solar and weatherization programs and city parks and parking lot solar awnings or canopies.

The city is working on upgrading municipal facilities for energy efficiency under its energy master plan, Robertson said.

Measure Five for education and workforce would have the city look at partnering with Fort Smith Public Schools and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith for education, offer apprenticeships for workforce development, and conduct public education for opportunities for low income or disadvantaged communities.

“I’ve already talked with the director of education at Fort Smith Public Schools, and she is ready to join forces with the Arkansas Advanced Energy Foundation to start doing education within K-12 about not just energy efficiency, but also about jobs that will potentially be coming available because of this push in renewable energy,” Robertson said.

EPA grant funding will be awarded in October.