County officials, highway department, public grapple with difficult questions related to fate of Beaver Bridge
There seems to be no easy resolution between the Arkansas Highway Department's (AHTD) plan to replace the Beaver Bridge and controversy it has stirred in the Beaver area community and Carroll County at large.
The one-lane suspension bridge has been deemed inadequate by the AHTD. It does not conform to AHTD's minimum state highway standards of two-lane traffic capable of withstanding 18-wheel tractor-trailer loads.
The bridge requires annual maintenance and has a weight limit of 10 tons. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
AHTD's initial proposal was to demolish the bridge and replace it with a new one with possible 12-foot-wide traffic lanes and 8-foot shoulders.
In later proposals, AHTD officials have stated they would be willing to hand over the bridge to some entity, such as a city, the county, or a private individual able and willing to maintain it.
AHTD has offered several "alignment" scenarios in the last three years of public hearings for location of the new structure.
All of the locations would impact to some degree any or all of the following: private homes or land, a heron rookery, or native American archeological sites.
An alternate proposed route, that of connecting Highway 62 West to 23 North by way of land west of Lake Leatherwood City Park, has been considered by AHTD. But the department has said the only way it will do that is if another entity will take over Highway 187 and the Beaver Bridge.
At the heart of the controversy is money.
Beaver area residents and others have called for the county to take back Highway 187 and the bridge, but county officials and Quorum Court members have said the county cannot afford to do so.
Budget shortfalls and the failure of a sales tax vote last year make this proposal nearly impossible, they said.
Highway 187 between 23 North and 62 West is nine miles long. It is difficult to get figures for its specific maintenance because costs are figured overall for all roads in a system, and some other expenditures are included in budgets.
"The condition of the road and the surface quality is as good and better than any other county road," said former county judge Ed Robertson. "It's built to state standards."
Robertson gave a very rough estimate of what it costs to maintain all the county roads, many of which are graveled: about $1,000 per mile per year. That would be about $9,000 for Highway 187.
"The cost of maintaining it would not be prohibitive," he said.
Current county judge Mike Botelho agreed there is no easy way to come up with a figure for paved roads.
Holiday Island's budget for its 74 miles of roads comes in at about $3,000 per mile per road, said District Manager Kevin Crosson, but other costs, such as facility maintenance, are figured into that, so it's probably too high.
Randy Ort, Public Information Officer for AHTD, said the average state cost, spread over all roads, is about $7,000 per mile per year for two-lane asphalt roads.
But both Botelho and Robertson agree: the problem is not the highway, but the bridge.
"Sooner or later, a major overhaul will have to be done on the bridge," Robertson said. "That's where the biggest problem is. The option of Highway 62 to 23 doesn't solve that dilemma. The county will never be able to afford to maintain that bridge."
A major overhaul of decking and other portions of the bridge and a complete new paint job were done last year by AHTD at a cost of more than $200,000. Ort and the local AHTD bridge engineer out of Harrison, Ark., said that should make the bridge last another 20 years.
"Fifteen years from now, is it going to need it again?" Botelho asked. "And we'll get hit with a $300,000 tab?"
Ort gave maintenance figures for the Beaver Bridge for the last several years, as follows, broken down between the Little Rock heavy bridge maintenance crew's parts and labor, and the local Harrison routine maintenance crew's parts and labor:
1999: $5,700. $1,200 local maintenance and $4,500 heavy bridge maintenance.
2000: $70,500. $9,300 local and $61,000 heavy bridge. The high expense here was rehabilitation of joints.
2001: $19,500. $4,200 local and $15,000 heavy bridge. Floor beams were replaced in this year.
2002: $1,100, all local routine maintenance.
2003: $238,000, heavy bridge major overhaul of redecking and painting.
2004: less than $1,000 through April, all local.
That's an average of about $4,000 per year on the local level, Ort said.
It is possible that money set aside to demolish the bridge, up to $60,000, could go to whichever entity takes it over. But the funds cannot be used for yearly maintenance of the bridge, said Lynn Malbrough, senior environmental scientist for AHTD.
They would have to be used in a one-time project to do a major overhaul. And he was not sure the money could be transferred in a lump sum and held in an interest-bearing account for the interest to be used for yearly maintenance. It's possible the money would only be available when the time came to do a major overhaul. These are questions the federal highway division would have to answer. As of press time, calls to them had not been returned.
The state does not entirely abandon bridges owned by counties, AHTD officials said recently. The highway department, which has the special expertise and equipment, does set aside funds to help counties maintain bridges.
Need for a state highway
If the Beaver Bridge were made into a foot and bicycle bridge, maintenance would cost even less and the bridge would last longer. But it does not solve AHTD's problem that the bridge is part of a state highway that has been deemed a "major collector" of traffic and does not meet federal standards as such.
Even if the highway and bridge were taken back by the county, AHTD would want an alternate route connecting Highways 62 and 23 to replace Highway 187, deemed a "major traffic collector."
"There is a need for traffic service off Highway 23," said Malbrough. "If (Highway 187) is not a state highway, we would have to look at what are the highway needs."
In the last two hearings on the bridge replacement, one held March 18, 2003, and the other April 15, 2004, public response was overwhelming that area residents do not want a new bridge.
Figures from comment forms turned in to AHTD last year and as of late April this year reveal the following:
Interim judge Botelho resides in Beaver. He was appointed to fill out Robertson's term until after this fall's election.
"I love the esthetics of that bridge," he said. "I don't want to see it taken down."
But he said that, as interim judge, he does not feel he can make that decision for the county.
What do candidates for county judge think of this issue?
Eulys K. Smith of Berryville, a Democrat, said he had given it "quite a lot of thought and studied the situation."
"I am completely in sympathy with the people of Beaver," he said. "I can understand wanting to keep the bridge and keep it open. The flip side is that with the county's money woes, I don't even know how we can do it.
"I know the state's position. Even if I'm elected, the state will probably do what they feel needs to be done, and I don't think you can stop them."
His opponent, Richard Williams of Green Forest, who describes himself as a "very conservative Republican," takes a much stronger stand, and had much more to say -- in support of the bridge and the county taking back Highway 187. He owns the Holiday Island Citgo gas station, located not far from Highway 187.
"Everything should stay like it is," he said, "no alternate routes whatsoever. A lot of people who moved out there did so for a reason. This is laid-back country.
"Let's take it back. The county can maintain it -- we can get grants."
He believes building another bridge and approaches that would take people around Beaver or around Eureka Springs would result in lost tourist revenue. And he doesn't believe tractor-trailer traffic needs to come through the Beaver area.
He also sees the loss of tourist revenue as a county-wide issue, not one that affects just the western side of the county.
"It's going to affect Holiday Island and would destroy the tranquility around here. People won't stop and get gas, they won't have dinner or spend the night. They'll be out of Carroll County in the same time it took them to drive through Eureka Springs.
"The ones that already need to go around Eureka Springs have their bypasses -- Route 37," he said. "If you go by a highway where they've built bypasses around a town -- people don't go there. How much would the county lose in revenue?
"Two years ago we spent $42,000 on the airport for a few people to enjoy. We spent over $50,000 for county offices. We spent $70 to $105 an hour for two-way radios. We have all this money we're spending, and we can't take care of roads? We have to quit the waste we currently do have."
It has been a popular perception that most of the Quorum Court members, who live on the east side of the county, and east county residents, don't care about problems on the western side. To them, Williams says:
"I live on the east side of the county, and I do care about it. I cared before running for county judge. We have to take care of our county -- all of it. It will affect the revenue there (on the east side) as well as here. Someday something will happen in that part of the county, and we all have to stick together."
Williams applauds county officials and department heads who gave up some of their salaries and put a freeze on hiring last year to help make the county solvent during its budget shortfall.
"They all got together and threw in. I admire them for doing that. The money belongs to the people of Carroll County. Let's spend it for the benefit of the county."
When questioned last year about the bridge issue and the county judge's authority, Robertson stated that under county rules, the judge has sole responsibility for the roads.
He could make a decision to take back a road from the state and put it into the county system -- independent of the Quorum Court. But such an action would likely be legally challenged.
"And I don't think it would be right to do that," he said. "You don't want to alienate your Quorum Court. Everyone needs to work together."
AHTD's next step
Malbrough said AHTD is getting ready to release another document -- probably within the month -- to local mayors and county officials listing "options" for the bridge project.
"We won't rate the options," he said. "We will leave that in the hands of the locals. We want to know what the locals want."
Is "no bridge" an option?
"It can be done," he said. "It's an option if the locals take over Highway 187. But if it's on the state system, we have to look at improving it."