Editorials

Editorials

Making Arkansas 2020 a Reality

Arkansas Professional Engineer

Apr 01 2014

Back in 2006, the University of Arkansas, Little Rock (UALR) published the Arkansas 2020 report which aimed to predict what the Natural State would like in 2020. The project—initiated by the Arkansas Legislature—brought together state agencies and major universities to study potential growth and demographic changes as well as possible new policies, programs, and structures to address these developments.

The report highlights trends that are of great interest to the engineering community and civic leaders. According to the findings, four out of the six “emerging urban areas” in Arkansas will likely experience growth rates exceeding the state’s average rate of 1.47 percent.

Indeed, we have witnessed rapid growth in many parts of the state since those findings were published. That is only expected to continue and expand.

Arkansas has traditionally been a rural state. The growth in many parts of the state is leading more traditionally rural communities to become urbanized, including the Jonesboro metro area, central Arkansas and the northwest Arkansas region. Growth is positive, but it poses challenges.

Public servants—local, state and federal—need to remain committed to promoting policies and projects that encourage economic and job growth in our state so that our communities can accommodate the projected influx of new Arkansans. This year in Washington, we have an opportunity to pass two major bills that will help in this regard—the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and a new highway bill.

With major rivers including the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers, our state has the third most miles of navigable waterways out of all 50 states. These waterways are critical to job creation, farming, transportation, recreation, and economic development in the Natural State.

I am working to make sure the final bill will reduce project delays, which will cut costs. It must also improve oversight and increase coordination with non-federal project sponsors. Additionally, WRDA should provide reliable maintenance of Arkansas ports on the Mississippi River, and it must improve levels of service at Army Corps of Engineers navigation projects.

Flooding is another major concern addressed in this bill. The 2011 Mississippi River flood claimed several lives, damaged buildings, roads and bridges, and severely impacted Arkansas farms. Without our levee and flood inastructure, destruction would have been more severe. In 1927, the Mississippi River flooded 14 percent of our state. The flooding in 2011 would have been much worse without the infrastructure we have now. WRDA promotes continued wise investments in flood risk reduction.

The good news is we are close to finalizing a deal between both the House of Representatives and the Senate that reconciles the two different versions of WRDA. Once that is accomplished, I believe it will clear Congress with ease and be signed into law by President Obama.

Along with our waterways, we must have sufficient, structurally-sound highways, roads and bridges to accommodate the growth. Washington has a large role in this debate considering the highway bill is set to expire. The highway trust fund, which funds federal road projects, will be empty by this fall. Without reforms, including reforms that reduce project delays and cut bureaucratic red-tape, states will not be able to complete current highway projects or start important new ones.

As a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, I am participating in hearings and discussions about how to tackle these problems.  Wise infrastructure investments save money over the long term, create immediate jobs and produce decades of economic opportunity for communities. This is an important key to long lasting growth and development. We can meet the needs of a growing state if public officials at every level work together and seek innovative solutions.