No. 9 News Story of the Year: AHTD answers questions in Green Forest, backs off Highway 62 plans

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

GREEN FOREST -- Making Carroll County News' list of Top Ten News Stories of the Year at No. 9 is the abandonment of the proposed expansion and/or re-routing of U.S. Highway 62 in Green Forest.

After more than a year of waiting, residents of Green Forest in June got some answers about the Highway Department's plans for the highway, and many of them were not happy with what they learned.

The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department at a June public meeting in Green Forest unveiled four proposals for the highway that would either expand it in its current route -- which would require the tearing down of a number of historic buildings -- or re-route it altogether around the city -- which many feared would kill the town's downtown businesses.

At that meeting, residents were asked to fill out comment forms that were to be later read and considered by department officials in their decision-making process. A decision was promised within a month.

It took a little longer than that, as it turned out. On Sept. 27, Highway Department officials announced that they were no longer planning to expand or re-route U.S. Highway 62 in or around the city of Green Forest.

The AHTD will "defer additional preliminary engineering and environmental analysis on the proposed U.S. 62 improvements within the City of Green Forest to a future date," officials said in a press release.

At the June meeting, the city's residents had spoken out in broad opposition to several different proposals by the AHTD to either expand U.S. 62 to four lanes through the center of town or re-route it altogether either north or south of the downtown area, bypassing the center of town and the businesses there.

In their press release Thursday, AHTD acknowledged that widening U.S. 62 through downtown is "not feasible, mainly because of the number of relocatees, including several historic buildings.

"However, the community's local and state elected officials and some business owners have continued to express concern over the possible impact of a bypass on the local economy, which has factored into the decision to defer action on this project," department officials said.

Mayor Charles Reece was one who had been an outspoken opponent of bypassing downtown by re-routing U.S. 62, and he said in late September he was pleased with the announcement.

"Obviously, I think it's good for the city and our business owners," Reece said.

He added that most Green Forest residents had been opposed to the project. The Carroll County News obtained copies of residents' comment forms that were filled out at the June public hearing held by the Highway Department. About half were opposed to AHTD's plans; the rest were mixed or supported one or the other of the bypass proposals.

"My thoughts are, 'Are we gonna need it one day? Yeah.' But now is not the right time," Reece said at the time.

He said that, given the current economic climate, the city needs time to strengthen its economy before a bypass is implemented.

The Highway Department said in its press release that it will instead turn its focus toward other segments of U.S. 62 that local officials and the department's staff have identified as being a high priority for needing improvements.

"Improvements to Highway 62 are needed in numerous locations within this highway corridor," AHTD Director Scott Bennett said. "Therefore, the department will now redirect its efforts and funding to areas that warrant improvement from a safety and capacity standpoint."

Don McNeely, who represents Green Forest's District 9 on the Carroll County Quorum Court, said after the announcement that he was pleased as well, because many of his constituents had opposed the bypass proposals.

He added that he had thought AHTD might back down, but he hadn't known for sure.

AHTD officials said they will keep area residents informed of any new U.S. 62 improvement projects that will be developed and evaluated to address the identified needs within this corridor, the press release stated.

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