- Associated Press - Monday, July 10, 2017

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Cities can solve 5 o’clock traffic jams on their own or with local help, but figuring out where those cars will idle decades from now is best left to the big consultants, experts say.

The experience and mathematical know-how of national consultants help cities see where transportation problems are likely to occur in the future, so they can plan for rather than react to them.

Planning staff generally have a finger on the pulse of what ails a city transportation-wise, and it wouldn’t make sense to hire an outside consultant to reinforce what they already know, said Eric Damian Kelly, professor of urban planning at Ball State University.

However, the tools national consultants usually have, including advanced software and expertise in analysis of volumes of data, simply aren’t available to most cities, Kelly told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/2sLZBDI ). Some large cities have special staff members on-hand, but that gets expensive, and for a one-time job like a traffic study, it makes more sense to hire a consultant, he said.

“There can be definite advantages, but that’s not to say that every national consulting firm that comes in earns its fee,” Kelly said. “You all have to evaluate that. But, if they get the basic plan done and adopted and the City Council’s willing to go with it, they’ve accomplished a lot.”

Cities in Northwest Arkansas have taken different approaches based on their needs and growth.

Fayetteville just unveiled a draft of an overhaul to its transportation master plan. It will lay out capital projects for the next decade covering driving, walking, bicycling and transit and also put down a foundation to accommodate growth far beyond that time frame, city officials have said.

The city hired San Francisco-based consultants Nelson/Nygaard for $490,000 to analyze the state of all things Fayetteville transportation. The consultants also have tackled a downtown parking plan at a $95,000 price tag.

A half a million dollars to hire professionals who live nowhere near the state to come up with a transportation plan might sound steep, but in the city’s view, it’s worth it, said Chris Brown, city engineer for Fayetteville.

“There’s a balance there. We’ve got to serve the needs of people as they live today, but we also have to plan for the future. How you do that and how well you do that is the trick,” Brown said. “At some point, you’re going to have the complete network, and you’re going to be glad that you did plan for it in that way.”

Bentonville, the fastest-growing of the four major cities, hired a local consultant to look specifically at intersections and get traffic moving smoother. However, a Chicago-based firm has headed the effort to come up with a comprehensive city plan to guide growth for the next two decades.

A final version of the Bentonville Community Plan should be revealed by August or September, said Troy Galloway, the city’s community and economic development director. The plan covers pedestrians, bicycles, cars and how to better accommodate a public transit system.

The City Council hired planning consulting firm Houseal Lavigne in 2015 to spearhead the effort to create the comprehensive plan. The council approved a $448,223 contract, with the Walton Family Foundation awarding the city a $200,000 grant for the project.

Since 2015, the city has used the data gained in a traffic study by Fayetteville engineering firm Garver to seek millions in grants to pay for street projects.

An outside pair of eyes helps make sure city officials are trying to solve the right problems and dedicate resources to address more pressing challenges, Galloway said.

“Bentonville’s daytime population swells by almost 20,000 folks,” he said. “We’ve got the resources of a city of about 45,000 people, but during the daytime we’re trying to provide a transportation network that’s serving a population of 60,000 to 65,000 people.”

Rogers is in the middle of a traffic study to assess congestion and safety, which city officials can use when planning for growth. Crafton-Tull, a local consultant, has helped in that effort.

The city hopes to collect the data this fall, crunch the numbers in winter and have a final report by spring, said Nathan Becknell, Rogers city engineer. The last such study the city had was in 2005, which focused mainly on congestion, he said.

A Rogers-based consultant knows the ins and outs of the city, Becknell said. It’s a philosophical difference from hiring a more nationally oriented firm, he said.

“I’ve seen it done both ways, and both ways have their benefits. Both ways have their drawbacks,” he said. “On this one, we thought it’d be good to go local.”

Springdale has made getting cars from one end of town to the other a priority. Mayor Doug Sprouse said the appetite in his city from staffers, the council and the public generally is to keep planning in-house for that sort of work.

Sprouse said he hopes to bring a bond issue to voters by next year that would likely generate $130 million to $150 million for various projects.

The city sets aside money every year for trails and sidewalks based on what it can afford, has requirements for sidewalks and trail connections on new roads and a trail committee that works to connect parts of the city to the Razorback Regional Greenway.

“I don’t think we’re to the point right now where we’re ready to go out there and spend a significant amount of money for a study,” Sprouse said.

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission does not heavily involve itself in each city’s transportation plan, but does sit in on meetings to make sure major roads and trail connections flow smoothly through the region, said Tim Co

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Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.nwaonline.com

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