The Republicans' campaign promise to start cutting government spending is starting to hit home in Northwest Arkansas. Third District U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers, a Republican, has said he will side with his party rather than vote to fund a trail system stretching from Lake Bella Vista to south Fayetteville.
Last year, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission (NARPC) was awarded a $15 million federal grant to complete an 18-mile stretch of the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile trail system connecting paths in Bentonville, Rogers, Lowell, Springdale, Johnson and Fayetteville. Trail advocates and transportation officials were ecstatic. A project they thought might take up to 20 years to complete would now be finished in as little as four.
The Walton Family Foundation, a supporter of the project, had agreed to throw in the $3.75 million local match portion of the grant to complete the trail between Bentonville and Johnson, as well as up to $11.25 million in matching funds for the remainder of the trail. Things were looking up.
Now, not even half a year after the funds were awarded, that federal funding source could be in jeopardy.
The $15 million was part of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER II) program, an extension of the 2010 Appropriations Act aimed at investing more in transportation infrastructure.
The funds were awarded, but not delivered. Congress did not pass the 2011 budget late last year and all departments are operating under a continuing resolution that expires on March 4. Republicans in Congress have attached an amendment to the budget bill that would cut the project's funding.
John McLarty, transportation study director for the NARPC, says securing those funds was no small accomplishment.
"We were one of 42 construction projects, out of 1,000 applicants," McLarty says. "The Razorback Regional Greenway was the only project chosen in TIGER II in the entire state. That's one of the points we're making in our response letters [to our congressmen]. This wasn't handing out candy to every kid that raised their hand. This was an extremely competitive process."
Womack says the reliance on federal funds for such projects has to stop.
"I realize this project has widespread support, including matching funds from the Walton Family Foundation," Womack said in an e-mail. "However, our country has a deficit this year of $1.5 trillion and soon our national debt will exceed the $14.3 trillion authorized by law. Programs must be cut. Dependency on the federal government has to stop. The spending path we are on is not sustainable. While I wholeheartedly support the project, I found it difficult to argue on its behalf given the many other programs we cut or eliminated."
"That tells me he crossed the Potomac and went crazy," says Terry Eastin, a long-time trail advocate from Fayetteville. "It tells me he is not going to buck the Republican Party regardless of the reason, no matter if it's good for Northwest Arkansas or not. That's what most people don't understand. They think, 'Oh, don't worry about it, there will be a federal grant or something that will help get that done.' But there won't be. When you combine that with all the other cuts, municipalities are not going to have the money to develop alternative transportation systems. They never have."
McLarty says the Walton Family Foundation is still willing to fulfill their $15 million commitment, but the loss of federal funding would slow the project down tremendously.
Womack says other funding sources will have to be found.
"Northwest Arkansas has always found the resolve to deliver quality-of-life projects. I am confident this project will come to fruition even if federal assistance is not available."
Eastin, and others, hope so. So far, however, no specific replacement money has been identified.
Sen. Mark Pryor, who supported the original funding, said he supports spending cuts this year in Congress, but said in a prepared statement "taking back these funds from Northwest Arkansas at this point would be unfair."
Pryor noted that House action doesn't end consideration of the matter. "We also know that the House will pass amendments of all sorts this Congress and I will look at each of them as they come up in the Senate."