A total of $16.5 million in federal grant money was awarded to 13 different cities and counties across Central Arkansas to make certain intersections, trails and street segments safer and more environmentally friendly, according to Metroplan, the region's long-term transportation planning agency.
The money will be spent on a total of 15 projects that are either in the design phase or ready for construction, said Casey Covington, Metroplan's executive director.
"For those designated construction projects, we already provided funding for those designs and they'll be ready to enter the construction phase next year," he said.
More than half of the awarded money -- $9 million -- will be spent on three projects: the Salem Road reconstruction in Conway, the Crystal Hill reconstruction in North Little Rock and the Southwest Trail of the Regional Greenways in Pulaski County. Each of those projects will be awarded $3 million.
Additionally, the city of Little Rock will receive $1.1 million to reconstruct West Markham Street from Cedar Street to Pearl Avenue. That segment of road will undergo a "road diet" that will reduce the roadway from four lanes to two and add a center turn lane to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, according to Metroplan.
Covington said the sidewalks in that area are "really pretty narrow" and challenging for pedestrians. The coming construction project will allow for an expansion of those sidewalks to make it safer, he said.
"In the long run, we're looking to have better connectivity from that midtown area all the way to downtown," Covington said of the Markham project. "That would be our hope."
Funding is provided through the Surface Transportation Block Grant and Carbon Reduction Programs, which are federal-aid transportation programs administered by the Federal Highway Commission, according to Metroplan. Jurisdictions submit applications to Metroplan and the decisions are made following a "rigorous" review process, Covington said.
Metroplan is the area's federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization. It aims to ensure that local governments across the region have a say in transportation decisions that are made at the federal level. Metroplan is not part of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, but the two agencies work together to "develop a transportation network that is safe and functional" for Central Arkansas, Covington said.
He added that the projects are designed not only to make transportation safer and easier, but also to improve air quality, which is why some of the money was awarded to projects related to the Central Arkansas Regional Greenways, which provides a safer path for pedestrians, joggers and bicyclists.
Lorie Tudor, director of ArDOT, said Metroplan does an "excellent job" identifying and addressing roadway safety concerns across Central Arkansas.
"We commend [Metroplan] on this latest effort to fund much-needed improvements to the transportation system in the region," she said.
Several smaller jurisdictions also are getting a piece of the grant money, including the city of Austin, which was awarded $230,00o for the installation of a traffic signal at the corner of Arkansas 38 and North Lincoln Street. The intersection is a short distance east of Cabot Middle School North, barely outside the designated school zone.
Mayor Bernie Chamberlain said she was elated when she found out that her city's intersection was among those selected, but was hoping for a tighter timeline for construction.
"[Metroplan] said it is going to be 2025 until it gets installed completely," she said. "I was hoping it would be all done by next year before school starts, but it's not looking that way. We're really ready for it."
A painted crosswalk is all that's there for students to use to cross the street, even though it's one of the busiest intersections in town, according to the city.
Chamberlain and Public Works Superintendent Chris Nelson said the city of Cabot was looking into adding a traffic signal to that intersection, but realized in 2019 that it was actually located inside Austin's boundary. After that, Austin officials wasted no time looking for ways to make the intersection safer because of the traffic and pedestrian congestion there.
"This is something that's been in the works for a while and now we're finally able to put it all together," Nelson said.
The grant money will cover 75% of the cost of the intersection and the city will foot the rest of the bill. It will go out for bidding in August 2024 and construction should begin about a month later, according to the city.