Pu­laski County pulls U-turn on hike, bike trail

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - BRAN­DON MUL­DER

There was stand­ing room only on Thurs­day even­ing as the Pu­laski County Quo­rum Court voted to re­verse a de­ci­sion made last month over a 65-mile hike and bike trail be­tween Lit­tle Rock and Hot Springs.

The re­cently in­stalled bike racks out­side the county ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing were chock full of the bi­cy­cles many res­i­dents rode on their way to en­sure the Quo­rum Court took the first step to­ward the project.

In a 10-3 vote, the jus­tices of the peace ap­proved a mea­sure to ac­cept a fed­eral grant to pay for 80 per­cent, or $2.7 mil­lion, for the project’s first phase.

Last month, the ab­sence of sev­eral Demo­cratic mem­bers of the county’s leg­isla­tive board al­lowed the board’s Repub­li­can bloc to block the mea­sure. One con­di­tion of the grant re­quires a 20 per­cent match, $520,000, split be­tween the lo­cal gov­ern­ments in­volved, Pu­laski, Saline and Gar­land coun­ties.

The com­bined lo­cal dol­lars and grant dol­lars would pay for a pre­lim­i­nary en­gi­neer­ing and en­vi­ron­men­tal-im­pact study, as well as de­ter­mine the trail’s route be­tween Lit­tle Rock’s Cen­tral High School and Hot Springs Na­tional Park. Next year Pu­laski County, which is lead­ing the three coun­ties in the project, would ap­ply for an­other fed­eral grant.

Repub­li­can mem­ber Phil Stow­ers set the premise of the ob­jec­tions to the mea­sure last month, say­ing the county should have other in­fras­truc­tural pri­or­i­ties. On Thurs­day, mem­bers Aaron Robin­son and Luke McCoy, both Repub­li­cans, made a sim­i­lar case when ex­plain­ing the ra­tio­nale be­hind their op­po­si­tion.

There’s no cer­tainty the county would con­tinue to re­ceive fed­eral grants as the project pro­gresses through its three phases, Robin­son said, and no plan for how the county would pay for main­te­nance and se­cu­rity along the trail in the fu­ture. McCoy felt that the county should se­cure money for the project on the front end.

“I’m not say­ing this is a bad idea. I’m just say­ing that there are sev­eral un­der­ly­ing is­sues that all need to come to­gether be­fore we start spend­ing tax­payer dol­lars that pay an en­gi­neer,” said Robin­son. “We’re not pay­ing for a bike trail, we’re pay­ing for a de­sign for a bike trail.”

County Judge Barry Hyde, who has been a driv­ing pro­po­nent of the project af­ter the re­tire­ment of for­mer County Judge Buddy Villines — who had been craft­ing the project since 2013 — was quick to counter that ar­gu­ment.

“When you work on a big project, you have to have a plan be­fore you start mov­ing for­ward. You have to have a plan be­fore you’ve firmed up how much money you’re re­ally go­ing to need,” Hyde said. “This is the nor­mal process for a large build­ing project, a large de­vel­op­ment project or a green­way.”

“I would love noth­ing [more than] for this bike trail to be a huge suc­cess and to eat ev­ery word I’ve said against this trail,” McCoy said.

Thurs­day, the Repub­li­can mem­bers were the mi­nor­ity. Ab­sent on their side was Stow­ers, who was away on busi­ness, and Paul El­liott, who was at­tend­ing his mother’s fu­neral.

The mea­sure passed, with McCoy, Robin­son and Repub­li­can Doug Reed vot­ing against, as they had done last month.

More than a dozen mem­bers of the pub­lic signed up to speak in fa­vor of the mea­sure, and only Mark John­son — who serves as the chair­man of the Pu­laski County Repub­li­can Com­mit­tee — spoke against it.

John­son called the spend­ing “sub­si­dized recre­ation” for “some­one who spends $5,000 or even $10,000 or more on a bi­cy­cle.”

“Pu­laski County needs more jail beds so we can lock up more of the bad guys who are per­pet­u­at­ing crimes in our com­mu­nity against our cit­i­zens. It needs bet­ter roads and bridges, and not just pret­tier ones,” he said.

Speak­ers in fa­vor of the item in­cluded Joe Ja­cobs, chair­man of the Gover­nor’s Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil on Cy­cling, and Ma­son El­lis, who was rep­re­sent­ing the Bi­cy­cle Ad­vo­cacy of Cen­tral Arkansas and the Cen­tral Arkansas Trail Al­liance.

Ear­lier this week, Ma­son told the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette he planned to “pack the house to show sup­port” for the trail.

When he spoke be­fore the board on Wed­nes­day he stressed the im­por­tance of get­ting a project “shovel ready” be­fore it can at­tract fu­ture grants and pos­si­ble pri­vate dol­lars. The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, for in­stance, con­trib­uted $15 mil­lion to­ward com­plet­ing North­west Arkansas’ Ra­zor­back Green­way in 2009.

“We can stand here and talk about a trail all day but we’re not likely to get grant funds un­less we can show them an align­ment, the en­gi­neer­ing draw­ings, the plan­ning and say, ‘We’re go­ing to use your money on this project and it’s go­ing to cre­ate those jobs and have that eco­nomic im­pact on the area,’” El­lis said. “That’s what it’s go­ing to take to get that fu­ture fund­ing.”

The quo­rum courts of Gar­land and Saline coun­ties must also pass sim­i­lar res­o­lu­tions to con­trib­ute their share of the 20 per­cent match.

Rick Davis, the county judge for Gar­land County, plans to put the res­o­lu­tion be­fore his Quo­rum Court in early Au­gust. Saline County Quo­rum Court Ad­min­is­tra­tor Rhonda Richards also ex­pects the res­o­lu­tion to go be­fore that body in a sim­i­lar time frame.

“Pu­laski County needs to be do­ing ev­ery­thing in its power to cre­ate a vi­sion and at­mos­phere where peo­ple and busi­ness want to live,” said Jus­tice of the Peace Tyler Den­ton, a Demo­crat. “In this day and age, we can­not af­ford to miss out on op­por­tu­ni­ties that can dra­mat­i­cally im­pact the qual­ity of life for our cit­i­zens.”

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